Even before Travis Lewis busted up his left big toe, Javon Harris was on a mission.
First, Harris was out to reclaim the starting free safety spot that began slipping away as camp opened. With the Sooners coaching staff deciding to experiment with Tony Jefferson at free safety, Harris was in jeopardy of going from the starter at the end of spring to the bench by the start of the season.
“I knew I was going to have to come in and compete. I knew the depth at the safety position was going to be strong,” Harris said. “But once I found out the experiment was going to happen, it did fire me up. It fired me up a lot.”
When Lewis cracked a bone in his toe Monday, however, the experiment was off. Harris immediately went back to being the starting free safety. Jefferson went back to his nickel back position.
Now, with Lewis projected to be sidelined eight weeks, Harris is more determined than ever to keep his spot.
“If I'm going to come in, I'm going to take over a leadership role and not just come in and be a role player,” said Harris, who recorded 28 tackles, forced a fumble and blocked a punt in spot duty as a sophomore last season.
The Sooners need a motivated Harris.
He's replacing an All-American in Quinton Carter. And if that's not enough of a hurdle, flanking him in the secondary is strong safety Aaron Colvin, a sophomore who, like Harris, is also a first-year starter.
But Harris sounds convinced that an entirely new set of safeties can now anchor the Sooners defense. The source of his confidence is the reps he received last year at both safety positions, as well as snaps on just about every special teams unit. Colvin, meanwhile, is replacing Jonathan Nelson but Harris said Colvin should benefit from the experience he got playing cornerback last season, when he recorded 34 tackles and forced a fumble.
“I feel like we all have that experience to come in and play,” Harris said. “And at the same time, I feel like we can all come in and do the same things that those safeties that left (did). We had to learn from those guys.”
Harris soaked up any and everything he could from Carter, a fourth-round draft pick by Denver. On road games, Harris roomed with Carter. It was on those trips that Harris leaned most on Carter to learn more about the game's nuances. He watched how Carter led his team, studied how Carter played with great pace.
Now, the game has slowed down for Harris. He's seeing reads better and is much more confident on the field.
“I would say I'm a lot more comfortable,” Harris said. “With those reps, you don't go into the games as nervous. You don't go into practice not knowing things. You know those guys trust you back there. The other guys on that defense aren't looking back like, ‘We might have to cover for this safety.' They can look back and say, ‘This guy right here, he can take care of his business back there.' That's one thing I have to do.”
Colvin said Harris will do just that.
“Javon is a player. He's a guy who is going to fly around. He's going to go hard every play,” Colvin said. “Javon was a little inconsistent in the spring but now he knows what he's doing. He's tuned in. He seems to always be around the ball. Javon will be ready.”
Ask Harris and he'll tell you he has no choice but to be ready.
When the experiment with Jefferson started, Harris peered at the team's practice schedule and saw he had 29 sessions to win his job back. Now, the remaining days must be spent demonstrating exactly what he's capable of.
Because Jefferson is still lurking.
“He was doing great,” said defensive backs coach Willie Martinez of Jefferson at free safety. “And to have the opportunity to have him play that position and also play nickel, that's only going to make us better on defense.
“To have a guy that knows a couple of different positions (helps us) put the best 11 players on the field.”