A 'natural'

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He has blond hair, clean-cut good looks and a coach who refers to him as a "Natural."

He isn't Robert Redford and he won't be playing a lead role in Hollywood anytime soon, but Christian Harris just might play a key role for Tennessee's football team come fall.

After tearing an ACL and redshirting as a freshman in 2011, Harris played exclusively on special teams in 2012. Now fully healed and packing 240 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame, the rising sophomore is pushing for a spot in Tennessee's linebacker corps.

"I think Christian Harris is really going to be a good football player for us in the future," first-year Vol linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said this week. "If you look at Christian's physique, he's gained about 15 to 20 pounds. He's a lot stronger. He's a natural.

"He's a smart kid, as well. His basic knowledge of the game gets better every day. His fundamentals with his hands and feet are getting better. He's going to have a chance to play some good football for us."

That's an exciting thought for Harris, who was a tackling machine back at Etowah High in Woodstock, Ga. He recorded 108 stops, 19 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 12 pass breakups and an interception as a junior in 2009, then followed with 127 stops, 22 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 8 pass breakups and 2 interceptions en route to Class AAAAA all-state honors as a senior in 2010.

Harris is such a tough guy that he came off the Vol practice field and did interviews last March, unaware he had torn his ACL an hour earlier. Although he returned from surgery in time to play in 10 games last fall, he should be much more mobile now that the knee has had a full year to stabilize following surgery.

"The knee's doing great," he said. "It's not really bothering me that much. The only thing I really do with it is ice it up after practice. I feel confident in my knee. I think it's turned out pretty good."

Many athletes subconsciously favor a surgically repaired knee once they return to action. Harris believes he is past that mental hurdle, noting: "I haven't had too much trouble thinking about it and worrying that I might hurt it again."

Apparently not. He's asking knee to carry a lot of extra weight this spring.

"I put on 20 pounds over the offseason," Harris said. "I'm bigger, and my knee's holding up. I'm just about as fast as I was."

Harris worked at inside linebacker in last year's 3-4 defensive scheme but considers this year's switch to the 4-3 a welcome change.

"In high school I ran a 4-3, so I'm comfortable with that," he said. "The 3-4 last year was different for me, the fits and everything. I'm all right with the 4-3."

Playing middle linebacker in a 4-3 requires an adjustment from playing inside linebacker in a 3-4, but not a big adjustment.

"Obviously, you're going to take on guards, 3-4 or 4-3," he said. "But it's a little different how the offensive linemen are coming off blocks and where I'm supposed to fit."

Like many Vol defenders, Harris struggled to grasp the many wrinkles in Sal Sunseri's 3-4 scheme last season. And, like many Vol defenders, he loves the simplicity of new defensive coordinator John Jancek's scheme.

"I feel like it's good for everyone," Harris said. "We're not exactly taking it slow but the coaches will do stuff over until we get it right. Coaches say the same thing a million times just to remind us. That's good because last year we had a lot of missed assignments, people not knowing what to do. This year we're pretty confident on all of our assignments."

Even when Vol defenders managed to execute their assignments last fall, they missed far too many tackles. As a result, opponents averaged 35 points per game. Tackling is a much greater emphasis this year under new head coach Butch Jones.

"Yeah. We always have a couple of periods where Coach Jones will say it's live," Harris said. "Last year I don't recall any periods like that. It was mostly thud (wrap up but don't take the ball-carrier down)."

Like his fellow defenders, Christian Harris is thrilled by the return of "live" tackling drills.

"Definitely," he said. "You go full speed and don't hold back."

Tennessee's program has been so unstable the past five years that Thigpen is the third linebackers coach Harris has worked under in his two years on The Hill. Peter Sirmon was his position coach in 2011 and Sunseri filled the role in 2012. Rather than a negative, Harris views all of the shuffling as a positive.

"Every coach had something different to teach, so it was nice to get all these different aspects of the way to do things," he said. "You can kind of combine them all. It's made me a better football player. I'm always learning new stuff."

Still, the rash of the coaching changes during his time at Tennessee has forced Harris to grow up fast. He now understands that college football is a business, not just a game.

"Back in high I didn't know football," he said. "I just pretty much played it and did what the coaches told me to do. Now I get it."

Although he says his knee is 100 percent, Harris isn't quite as dynamic in his movements as he'd like to be this spring.

"I just feel like I need to get a little more explosive, get my legs stronger and make more plays when I get out there," he said. "I'm sharing the 2 (second-team repetitions) with Channing Fugate, so I have limited plays. When I'm out there I'm trying to make plays and make a name for myself."

That's true. "The Natural" is already taken.

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