TAMPA — Playing tailback was one of the few things Nigel Harris had not tried as a high school athlete — or ever, really.
Harris had proved to be a standout linebacker at Hillsborough High. He is one of the track team’s best hurdlers. His father said he excelled in youth soccer. Several coaches believe Harris, who never played basketball for the high school team, could have been one of the county’s top point guards.
Trusting that resume and his instincts, Hillsborough football coach Earl Garcia figured Harris would have no trouble making the transition to running back in his senior year.
“He’s an old-school throwback,” said Garcia, who would know of such things as Hillsborough’s coach the past 20 seasons. “He can do everything.”
Harris has validated Garcia’s belief, rushing for nearly 700 yards and 15 touchdowns at 8.4 yards per carry while still leading the Terriers with 111 tackles. In fact, Harris was a first-team Western Conference selection at running back but didn’t receive recognition on defense.
It should be noted that Harris also failed to earn all-conference mention for averaging nearly 37 yards per punt. And, yes, he had never punted before this season.
His all-around talents have been crucial for Hillsborough, which won the Class 6A, District 8 title and rolled to a five-touchdown victory over Osceola in its playoff opener.
The Terriers (9-1) will lean heavily on Harris again Friday, when they face longtime nemesis Armwood in the region semifinals.
Hillsborough will have the challenge of doing to the Hawks (8-3) what no school has ever done: beat them twice in the same season.
It would be an ironic turn of fate. Armwood has beaten the Terriers in the regular season and later ended their season in the playoffs for two straight years and four times since 2006.
With that kind of history, Hillsborough doesn’t want its 3-0 victory Oct. 18 to be written off as a fluke.
“It’s time to do it back to them,” said Harris, who broke his collarbone in last year’s 23-0 playoff loss to Armwood. “Now it’s time to finish it and give them what they deserve.”
Harris and Hillsborough are better equipped than ever to help deliver the finishing blow. But the Terriers’ deep and versatile roster, like most other high school programs’, was borne of necessity.
Over the summer, one of their top running backs — rising senior Trevor Steinke — broke a leg during the USF Sling ’N Shoot football tournament. Needing more depth at the position, Garcia turned to the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Harris.
The move seemed natural for one of the team’s best athletes, though Harris had never been a regular running back for a team on any level.
Harris has been a linebacker from the start, dating to his little-league days with the Junior Buccaneers in the Tampa Bay Youth Football League. He grew up dreaming of following in the footsteps of his sports idol, former Bucs great Derrick Brooks.
“Being on defense, you get to make the hits and as a running back you have to take them,” said Harris, who is being recruited by several Division I programs, including Vanderbilt, USF and Arizona. “And the mentality is different, like, crazier and on the wild side.”
Over the years, many coaches had plugged in Harris at fullback — him liking collisions and all — but few had given much thought to handing him the ball on a regular basis.
Garcia saw in Harris a big, fast, physical and tireless player who fit the prototype of a star running back.
“I want my best players on the field as much as possible,” he said. “And I’ve never seen him get tired or even bend over (in exhaustion). He’s just a warrior.”
Harris also had the bloodlines for the dual roles, with a father who played running back and linebacker at King High and later in Germany as part of a military football team.
“He had the spirit for it at an early age,” Lindsey Harris said. “He’d play six quarters if you let him.”
As it is, Harris has rarely left the field though his workload at tailback has been decreased over the course of the season.
He rushed for more than 100 yards and two touchdowns in each of his first three games, but hasn’t had more than nine carries since a one-point loss at Sickles on Oct. 12. Perhaps as a result, his production on defense has increased: he’s tallied 37 tackles in the past three games, including 13 against Osceola.
Other Terriers have stepped up to fill the void, including sophomore quarterback Dwayne Lawson and senior Jeremiah Green, another two-way standout who has 50 tackles, five interceptions and four rushing touchdowns.
“We’ve got to do whatever it takes to win,” Green said. “When you’re tired, that’s when your best comes out.”
If there’s any team capable of pushing the Terriers to the brink of exhaustion — not to mention, elimination — it’s Armwood.
Harris is embracing the opportunity to do something that’s never been done before — by him, by Hillsborough or by any other school.
“It’s going to be a great feeling,” Harris said. “We’ve been waiting for this.”
Joel Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @jdhometeam.