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Alabama's new-and-improved Damien Harris runs into Heisman conversation

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Harris believes A&M game challenged Bama (2:31)

Tide RB Damien Harris joins The Paul Finebaum Show to discuss how the Aggies prepared them for Week 7 and how he received praise from SEC great Mark Ingram. (2:31)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Damien Harris was visibly frustrated. He snapped off his helmet, bolted from the huddle and stood by himself on the sideline when he was pulled from Saturday's game on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line midway through the second quarter against Tennessee. His replacement, Bo Scarbrough, then leaped over the top of the offensive line for an easy touchdown. Alabama celebrated as it extended its lead, and as the offense gathered between series, Harris found a quiet spot on a stationary bike where he sat idly by.

Make no mistake: Harris has bought into the team-first concept preached by coach Nick Saban and running backs coach Burton Burns. He understands he’s not the only back who needs touches, and he knows full well the long-term benefits of not having to carry the rock 25 to 30 times per game. He never would have picked Alabama over in-state Kentucky out of high school had he felt the need to be a so-called feature back. Still, when sophomore Josh Jacobs got the call on the very next series, Harris did not look pleased.

But what goes around comes around, and after Jacobs had back-to-back rushes of 22 yards and 1 yard, he needed a breather. A refreshed and eager Harris subbed in and immediately took the handoff on the read-option, darted through the middle of the line and split two defenders as he dove into the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown. It was his 10th trip to the end zone this season, and he’d reached that milestone on fewer than 80 carries. He would end the day with 697 yards rushing for the season and a spot in the Heisman Trophy conversation.

It’s been a remarkable turn of events for a running back so often overshadowed by his own teammates. Harris, at 5-foot-11 and 214 pounds, doesn’t get the label of physical freak like Scarbrough, his 6-3, 235-pound backup. But Harris’ vision and patience set him apart. His ability to do everything, including blocking, has made him a starter each of the past two seasons. It also last year led to one of the quietest 1,000-yard rushing seasons you’ll ever find. He somehow was a forgotten star of a playoff team.

As it turns out, all he had to do was give up honey buns to gain everyone’s attention.

Entering his junior season, in which he would become draft eligible, Harris took a hard look at what was in his pantry. And sometime in the middle of his grueling summer workouts under strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran, he decided it was time for a change, he said. So he put himself on a diet and ran extra, losing weight and feeling better in the process. He has since sworn off sugar entirely and says he hasn’t had a honey bun since June or July.

“It hurts to talk about it,” he said of missing those fried swirls of high-fructose goodness.

Last season, part of the reason he wasn’t on the list of the best running backs in the country was because he scored just two rushing touchdowns. Twice he broke runs of 60 yards or more only to get caught from behind and stopped short the goal line. “We used to mess with him all the time about that,” center Bradley Bozeman said.

Not anymore, though. Against Arkansas last week, he took the opening handoff 75 yards to pay dirt. It was his third rushing touchdown of 60 yards or more this season.

“He’s really busting these,” Bozeman said. “He’s flying down the field.”

Said linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton: “He’s taken his game to the next level.”

Harris’ numbers are undeniable. He’s the only running back in the top 30 of rushing this season with fewer than 100 carries. Among all qualifying backs, he ranks sixth in yards per carry, at 8.6. More than half of his runs go for 5 yards or more, and he has rushed for 10-plus yards 17 times.

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is a presumptive Heisman favorite, but if you stack up his numbers against Harris’, there are some interesting distinctions. While Barkley has 60 more rushing yards, he has done so while averaging 6.5 more carries per game. Harris, meanwhile, has two more rushing touchdowns and averages two more yards per carry. Twelve percent of Harris’ carries result in touchdowns, compared to 6.8 for Barkley.

How’s this for consistency: Barkley has been stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage on 21.4 percent of his carries. For Harris, that number is 9.9 percent.

“Damien makes plays,” quarterback Jalen Hurts said. “He’s probably one of the top running backs in the country, and I get to watch it every Saturday.”

Wide receiver Calvin Ridley thinks Harris should be in Heisman contention, but Harris isn’t going that far yet. Like any smart running back, he’s deflecting all praise to his offensive line. Everyone wants to know what’s clicked since last season, he said, but there’s nothing on the field that’s any different.

But there is his diet. That’s the one topic he can’t avoid.

“How long am I going to have to talk about honey buns?” he joked after rushing for 125 yards and two touchdowns against Arkansas.

The answer: as long as he continues running over and past defenses.

Harris might have to give up carries from time to time, but there’s no doubt anymore that he is Alabama’s top dog. He has become the rare feature back who doesn’t have to touch the ball 20 times per game to make a difference. With more rest and fewer calories, he's able to show off his new wheels.

“You want to progress from year to year,” Hurts said. “Obviously, it’s something he wanted to work on. And he hasn’t been caught yet.”