USF’s Nigel Harris looked set for a historic collegiate career after his breakout campaign in 2014.
The senior linebacker led not only USF, but also the nation, in forced fumbles per game (0.55) while emerging as a leading tackler and defensive leader as a sophomore.
But Harris struggled to repeat his sophomore campaign in 2015, as his stats dipped and he earned a pair of suspensions from the team.
Over this offseason, he said he’s learned from the mistakes of last season, entering 2016 with renewed motivation.
“It was just my (lack of) focus and decisions that I made in the past,” Harris said in an offseason practice. “Things happen, I prayed about it. I have the whole USF team behind me and now we’re going to have a great season.”
Saturday at Raymond James Stadium, Harris was a defensive force in USF’s 56-20 win over Towson, returning an interception 49 yards, sacking the quarterback and stuffing the Tigers’ running back for a loss of yards.
With the final minutes of the first half ticking off the clock, Harris ripped the ball from a Towson wide receiver’s hands, and took off down the left sideline before finally getting caught at the five-yard line.
Junior quarterback Quinton Flowers added one of his two rushing touchdowns of the night on the next play, giving the Bulls a commanding 28-10 advantage at the half.
“That interception was really nice,” coach Willie Taggart said. “It’s his senior year and Nigel wants this to be the best year he’s had here and he’s worked that way this entire offseason to make sure he goes out with a bang. I was hoping he could have got in the end zone … Nigel needed to have a game like that to get him solidified on what he’s been doing this entire offseason, so it was good he came out and played that way.”
As a sophomore in 2014, Harris led USF in tackles for loss (10 1/2), forced fumbles (6) and was second on the team in tackles (77).
Poised to further entrench himself as a defensive leader in 2015, Harris was first suspended in the spring, missing USF’s spring game.
He was then suspended again in the fall, missing the Bulls’ first two games of the season. Both suspensions were for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
Even after returning to the field, Harris didn’t have quite the season he did in his breakout campaign the year prior. In 11 games in 2015, Harris had 35 fewer tackles and five fewer forced fumbles than he did as a sophomore.
With his time left as a Bull slipping through his grasp, he said both he and fellow starting linebacker Auggie Sanchez are fully prepared to make the 2016 season one to remember.
“We have to go out with a bang, especially because this is our last year playing together,” Harris said. “This is the longest I’ve played with a fellow back in my football career, so we’re going to enjoy this last year together, make sure we make the most of it and have fun with it.”
Harris (6) and Sanchez (7) finished in the top five tacklers Saturday, limiting Towson to only two touchdowns on the evening.
Coming into Week 1, Harris said he knew the Bulls had to stop the Tigers’ rushing attack — the lifeblood of its offense — at all costs.
“They like to run the ball downhill, so we have to play big-man football, just crack some heads,” Harris said in practice.
Towson lead-back Darius Victor, who has averaged over 100 yards per game over the past two seasons combined, was held to 70 yards and two scores on 23 carries Saturday.
But Harris wasn’t the only Bull looking to make his mark.
After USF starting-running back Marlon Mack exited the game in the second quarter with an upper-body injury following a big hit that caused a fumble, the Bulls’ offense didn’t miss a beat.
With the Tigers trailing 14-10 at the time, USF responded with a 51-yard touchdown from Flowers to N.C. State transfer Marquez Valdes-Scantling on the offense’s very next play.
Flowers finished the day with 178 yards on 8-of-18 passing and two scores. He also added 46 rushing yards on nine carries and another two touchdowns.
As the game slipped out of reach for Towson in the third quarter, Flowers was removed in favor of backup quarterback Brett Kean who promptly threw a 23-yard touchdown to running back D’Ernest Johnson on his first collegiate play to extend USF’s lead to 49-17.
Kean later hit redshirt freshman tight end Mitchell Wilcox for a 21-yard score up the left sideline, to put the nail in the coffin.
USF (1-0) will face its first FBS opponent of the season when it hosts Northern Illinois University (0-1) on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Raymond James Stadium.