TAMPA — When starting linebacker Reshard Cliett went down with a shoulder injury against Michigan State last week, USF coach Willie Taggart knew exactly who he could count on to fill the senior's shoes — freshman Nigel Harris.
The former Hillsborough High standout made the most of his opportunity in his first career start Saturday night, finishing with a team-high 12 tackles and one forced fumble in the Bulls' 28-10 loss against Florida Atlantic.
Taggart said he challenged Harris before the game to go out and prove himself in front of his hometown.
"I told him it's your opportunity and you only get one shot to make a first impression," Taggart said. "I think he made a pretty good first impression for us."
Harris, who was unavailable for interviews because Taggart prohibits freshmen from talking to the media, didn't waste any time making his presence felt against the Owls.
On FAU's first play from scrimmage, Harris knocked the ball out of tight end Alex Deleon's hands. And though the fumble was recovered by the Owls, the play alone was enough for Harris' teammates to take notice.
"He just came out there and he was ready to play," senior middle linebacker DeDe Lattimore said. "He stepped up big for us and we needed it."
In the second quarter, Harris continued to put pressure on FAU's rushing attack by making three solo tackles on one drive — including one that resulted in a 4-yard loss — to force a punt. He had eight total by halftime.
Junior defensive tackle Elkino Watson said it was good to see Harris succeed after watching him put in the work in practice.
"I think he had a great game for a true freshman," Watson said. "He came out and he worked hard all week. I think it showed on the field today with 12 tackles."
Taggart echoed Watson and added that he believes this is just the beginning of something very special for Harris.
"I think Nigel's going to have one heck of a career here," Taggart said. "I've said it before: He's a football player. He may not be the biggest, but he's flying around (and) he throws his body in there.
"He plays for this team, he plays for this university and he plays for his family. That's what we want, guys playing for those things and he did it."