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Can Charles Harris Improve on a Breakout 2015?

The former 'zero-star' has become one of the top players in the SEC

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

In the Gary Pinkel era, it was not uncommon for Missouri to sign a two-star recruit only for that player -- who usually elicited groans on signing day -- to turn into a star before heading off to the NFL. Danario Alexander, Sean Weatherspoon, Michael Egnew, Michael Sam, Justin Britt, L'Damian Washington... just to name a few. All came to Columbia as two-stars, and all either left as All-Americans or as integral parts of division-winning teams.

As a recruit, Charles Harris couldn't even meet the low expectations that came with being a two-star high school senior. Harris wasn't just unranked -- he didn't even have a profile on the major recruiting websites when his signing was announced. When your team signs a guy you would deem "out of nowhere" it's usually a low-level recruit whose only offers came from non-Power 5 schools. Harris has redefined what "out of nowhere" means to Missouri fans. Even Mizzou beat writers were completely unaware of who this guy was:

Slowly, news began to trickle in about Harris' athleticism. We knew he was 6'4, 220 right off the bat; not huge, but certain something the coaches could work with. We found out he was late to football; his first choice was basketball until his junior year of high school (maybe you've heard that during a Mizzou telecast).

But still, this was not a guy you really expected to contribute at any point. There are old message board posts that called Harris a waste of a scholarship. Why not just bank the scholarship for 2014? Why not just bring the guy in as a preferred walk-on?

Instead, Harris' signing has turned out to be Mizzou's version of the time someone saw Antonio Gates or Jimmy Graham on a basketball court, and thought it would be a good idea to see how they'd do in shoulder pads and cleats. Harris was a lottery ticket that just happened to contain the right combination of numbers.

In February 2013, I bet the average Mizzou fan would have been pleasantly surprised if Harris had become a career backup. Instead, he's become a monster: the best player on the team, a surefire All-SEC player and a potential first-round draft pick.

Since the offensive glory days of Chase Daniel, the strength of Missouri's teams has usually been the defensive line. "D-Line Zou," as they prefer to be called, has produced seven NFL draft picks from the defensive front four since 2009, including four first-round picks and a pair of SEC Defensive Players of the Year.

It says a lot not just about how far he's come from high school, but about how damn good he is now, that Harris is expected to carry on that tradition, and possibly improve upon it. For comparison's sake, here's how Harris' 2015 compared to Ray's 2013 -- his RS sophomore season -- and Sam's 2012 -- his RS junior season-- the years before each would go on to be recognized as the conference's best defensive player (Sam shared the award with Alabama LB C.J. Mosley):

Name Tackles TFL Sacks FF FR
Michael Sam '12 22 7 4.5 2 1
Shane Ray '13 39 9 4.5 2 1
Charles Harris '15 56 18.5 7 2 0

This is an imperfect comparison for a couple of reasons. 1) Ray was playing behind Sam and future second-round pick Kony Ealy in 2013. Who knows how productive he is if he gets first-string snaps. 2) Missouri's offense was so bad last season that it seemed like the defense was spending 45 minutes per game on the field. It's possible that could have padded Harris' stats a bit.

Still, even with those caveats it's difficult to make the argument that Sam or Ray was better at the same stage of development as Harris is right now. Beware, SEC East.

There are old message board posts that called Harris a waste of a scholarship. Why not just bank the scholarship for 2014? Why not just bring the guy in as a preferred walk-on?

Now, that's not to say that Harris will make the same leap that Sam and Ray did before their final seasons. Ray had nearly three times as many sacks as the year before as a junior. Sam had over twice as many as a senior. Harris isn't necessarily going to be the second coming of Derrick Thomas, but surpassing Ray's school record of 14.5 sacks is reportedly his goal, and it seems distinctly possible that he could do it. He's surpassed expectations so many times now that it would be unwise to start doubting him at this point.

A large part of Harris' rise to stardom is undiscovered talent and good coaching, to be sure. Now-departed defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski is one of the best in the business, and he was able to successful mold Harris into a pass-rushing, run-stuffing force. You don't do stuff like this without natural ability and well-coached technical skill:

But perhaps the biggest reason Harris' talent has been able to shine through is his work ethic, which is already beginning to manifest itself in apocryphal anecdotes from the coaching staff. Here's what new head coach Barry Odom had to say about Harris at SEC media days when asked about how Harris fits in with Mizzou's recent defensive line standouts, courtesy of Black & Gold Illustrated:

COACH ODOM: Yeah. The thing that -- University of Missouri has got a long run of great defensive linemen, and it started with Justin Smith back he and I were teammates, and then Larry Smith coached him and then moved into Coach Pinkel, and every year it kind of continues to progress.
And Charles is one of the next great ones, in my opinion. If you come and watch us practice on Tuesday afternoon, it looks like it's game day and it's fourth and one. I think that sets him apart. He's got an inner drive and demeanor that he wants to be the best.

It's hard enough to be successful in the SEC with five-star talent. We see cases all across the country where a kid has all the talent in the world without the willingness to put in the work to get the most out of that talent. But Harris came into the program one notch above the walk-ons. Working his ass off was a prerequisite to retaining his scholarship, let alone seeing the field. It would've been really easy for the staff to move on to the next one if the no-star basketball player wasn't putting in the time.

But he was, and man has it paid off.

2016 figures to bring more on-field challenges than any Harris has faced in the past. First, he's not sneaking up on anyone this year. It was excusable that teams weren't quite ready for Harris to make the leap from backup to All-SEC player in one year, but he's universally recognized as the most impactful player on this defense by now. Teams are going to chip him, send an extra blocker... whatever they need to do to keep him out of the backfield.

Second, the fact that Freshman All-American DE Walter Brady was dismissed from the team shortly before fall camp began is only going to compound the reality of Charles Harris: opponent focal point. Whoever replaces Brady may well be a good player, but his absence from the other end of the line only gives opponents more reason to hone in on number 91, even with a ton of talent on the interior of Missouri's line.

That means he'll have to bring it every single week. After all he's gone through to get to this point, it's a foregone conclusion that Harris won't be scared of that challenge. Opposing quarterbacks, rather, are the ones who should be afraid of giving him an incentive to go even harder.