December 5, 2018

Harris looking to help keep pending free agents in Winnipeg

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

He is the two-time Canadian Football League rushing champ, now freshly-minted as a five-time All-Star, and arguably THE face of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

And surely none of that ever gets old for Andrew Harris.

But of all the topics the running back touched on during a media availability following the release of the 2018 CFL All-Star Team on Tuesday – he’s one of five Bombers along with linebacker Adam Bighill, centre Matthias Goossen, left tackle Stanley Bryant and safety Taylor Loffler – one of the most intriguing is the role he could play in helping keep the team’s core intact.

“Me and (Bombers President and CEO) Wade (Miller) are working out a side commission,” said Harris with a grin. “I had lunch with Bighill just today. Honestly, the guys that want to come back, that want to be here, are going to do what they can to get back. And the guys that want to move on and try to get more money are going to do that. They’ve got to do what’s best for their families and best for their situation.

“But it’s going to be very hard on the players, on management on the coaches this year… especially for us because we have so many guys that are free (agents).”

Yes, as the CFL is in the early days of what could be an off-season of historic change, a player like Harris could be vital to the Bombers before the ball is even put on the tee next June.

The Bombers head into the winter with 31 pending free agents, including 12 starters and kicker Justin Medlock, with all that uncertainty pushed up against the backdrop of an expiring collective bargaining agreement.

Harris has been an influential voice in the past – he did speak to Bighill before the All-Star linebacker decided to sign here last May – and has also sold the virtues of both the Bombers organization and his hometown itself. And while that pro-Bombers/pro-Winnipeg sales pitch might not be necessary in convincing a current teammate to return, it could be critical in luring some of the other talent the club may target this winter.

Interestingly, of the Bombers five all-stars, Harris is signed through 2020, Bryant has an agreement in principle to return, while Bighill, Goossen and Loffler are all pending free agents. The other starters possibly heading to the open market are defensive backs Brandon Alexander and Kevin Fogg, receivers Nic Demski and Weston Dressler, guard Sukh Chungh, defensive linemen Jackson Jeffcoat, Drake Nevis and Tristan Okpalaugo and linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox.

“I am talking to guys,” said Harris. “You guys all know I preach about how much I care about the guys in the room and the guys we had this year. As much as I can do to keep the locker room the same and keep the continuity and keep that same energy that we had, I definitely want to be a part of that and make sure guys do come back. Even talking to a guy like Bighill, guys are interested in being in this environment and playing here. It’s going to be an interesting off-season, that’s for sure.”

Here are some of the other key takeaways from the session with Harris:


NO REST FOR THE RELENTLESS

Harris has said on numerous occasions over the past few years that he has changed his training regimen as he got older. He captured his second-consecutive rushing title and shows no signs of tapering off any time soon.

He will be 32 next April, and worth noting, Saskatchewan Roughriders legend George Reed won a rushing title at age 35 in 1974 and Mike Pringle was 33 when he won the crown in 2000. Robert Mimbs was 32 when he was the rushing champ in 1996, as was Hugh McKinnis in 1970.

Harris’ off-season will include a lot of hockey, basketball, and of course, hours in the gym.

“I was pissed I had to go to Grey Cup because I had two hockey games that weekend I wanted to play in,” he said with a chuckle. “I’ve been on the ice, I’ve played three or four times already. And I’ll be back in the gym right away, too.

“It’s crazy, I was thinking about the touches and the carries I took this year because those are usually the hardest on the body, but I feel great right now. No lingering injuries, nothing that was serious. I could be ready to jump into the full swing of training right now.”

Harris said in his final year in BC, in 2015, he was coming off an ankle injury and had gained 15-20 pounds. He was up to 225-230 then, but has spent the last three years with the Bombers at 215 pounds, which he considers his natural playing weight.

“I feel great at this point,” said Harris. “Everyone keeps talking about my age, but I feel great.”

THE WORKLOAD

Harris led the CFL in yards from scrimmage this year with 1,841 – 1,390 rushing and 451 receiving on 58 receptions. That’s a ton of work.

Last week GM Kyle Walters spoke of the offence, ranked first overall in scoring, and a further evolution that would see the team take more downfield shots.

Here’s Harris on what he thinks the offence needs to take another step:

“We were just inconsistent at times and that hurt us in certain games. If you look at that Calgary game (Western Final), there are probably three plays that if we complete those passes – there’s one in particular where (Chris) Streveler and I didn’t connect – if we get that play, the play to Darvin (Adams) as well… if we get those plays then who knows what happens. I felt we could have beat Ottawa (in the Grey Cup).

“I don’t think there’s one particular thing you can say, it’s just being more consistent overall. We did have a balance. We did have a great deal of creativity… a lot of people thought we were generic or boring, but we did way more misdirection or what people would call trick plays than other people did and we did stretch the field when we needed to.

“… If you want us to sit back and throw 40 or 50 passes a game, if that’s exciting to people, then so be it. But I think the way we ran our offence and the way LaPo (offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice) game planned each situation I think we were probably the most dynamic team in the league as far as being able to run and throw the ball and attack the edges with misdirection as well.”

LESS IS MORE?

Further to the above, Harris was asked if he would be interested in taking less of a workload.

“Nope,” he said. “But if I need to, if they ask that, that’s fine. It’s not about me taking a lesser load, I just think we need to be more consistent in whatever we’re doing.”

1K-1K

Harris took a real run at becoming the first player in CFL history to rush for 1,000 yards and finish with 1,000 yards in receiving in 2017 (he finished with 1,035 rushing, 857 receiving), but said Tuesday that feat is going to be exceptionally difficult for any back in this league.

“It’s going to be a lot harder for any running back to do that now because linebackers and defensive coordinators and defensive ends are playing the backs a lot more than they used to,” Harris explained. “Back when I first came into this league, no one would even look at the backs and I would be wide open all the time and (BC QB Travis) Lulay would always find me for big plays.

“The league has changed that way where it’s harder to get backs the ball. The game’s evolved a bit and it’s going to be hard for any running back to accomplish that.”