DAVIE — Charles Harris feels like a new man heading into his second season with the Dolphins, and it’s clear just by looking at his face that something is different.
After being selected No. 22 in last year’s draft, the transition to the NFL left Harris dazed at times. He had gone from being one of the biggest defensive stars in the SEC to a backup for the Dolphins, he wasn’t getting many sacks, he was unprepared for the financial windfall, work sometimes felt like drudgery and he was struggling to adapt to life on his own in a new environment.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact impact all of those factors had on Harris, but he was often downcast in the locker room after practice. He kept to himself mostly as he fought his way through what he now describes as “a dark place.” An offseason of prayer and reflection led to a renewed enthusiasm for Harris, and the change in his demeanor seems to have more to do with his personal life than anything football-related.
“Now I’m cool,” he said. “I understand that everything that happened the way it was, it was for the better of me and my family and everything like that. I understand that everything I do on the field and off the field affects everybody around me.
“I’ve got me a community down here being in Florida, being away from home, and that was a big thing. Now I have a community, I’ve got friends, I have everything I need to get to the top.”
Harris played all 16 games last season, but started just twice because he was behind Cameron Wake and Andre Branch. He played 47.5 percent of the defensive snaps and posted two sacks.
While no defensive end goes into the season targeting two sacks as an ambitious goal, he was satisfied with how he played. So were the Dolphins.
Next-level statistics that every team tracks indicate he was a strong presence as a pass rusher despite not racking up sacks. He was third on the team in quarterback hurries and in opponent penalties drawn. He produced a “positive play” one out of every eight snaps, which isn’t far behind the one every five or six plays that elite defensive ends put up.
There was still a constant feeling of confusion, and that often led him to treat football like merely a job. “I was just checking boxes every day; I came in, punched in, punched out,” he said. A lot of jobs are like that, but the NFL isn’t one of them. It takes a deeper commitment, especially for someone like Harris who aspires to be an elite defensive end, and his offseason soul-searching prompted a different approach to football.
“I feel like I just got better mentally, spiritually and things like that,” said Harris, who is a Christian. “Being able to take care of my family, get stuff done off the field and understanding grace and stuff like that. I’m better mentally. (That) is going to transition everything else.”
As for the direct effect that had on him football-wise, Harris said it motivated him to use his abilities to honor God: “This year it’s like I love it. I love it because I understand what it means to work. This is my work and use it as my worship.”
There’s an increased comfort level that comes experience, too. Not that he ever had trouble learning the playbook as a rookie, but he’s got a better handle on every aspect of the job now compared to a year ago.
“It’s less of a burden, for real,” he said. “It’s just free. Just playing free.”
With his mind in a better place on and off the field, Harris is heading into an amorphous opportunity this season.
The Dolphins are set on Wake and new trade acquisition Robert Quinn as their starting defensive ends, but the coaches have said multiple times the second wave of Branch and Harris will get ample snaps. The goal is spread playing time more evenly now that the team believes it has four starting-caliber defensive ends, plus veteran William Hayes and anyone else who emerges during the preseason.
That’s part of why Harris was undeterred by the team trading for Quinn, rather than simply let him battle Branch for a starting job. As accomplished as Wake and Quinn are — they’ve combined for seven Pro Bowl selections and 154.5 career sacks — Harris believes he’ll get enough chances if he shows he deserves them.
“Light is always going to shine,” he said. “I feel like you can’t contain nobody. You can’t keep anybody off the field. It’s the coaches that make sure … the best players are out there. That’s something they handle. I’m going to take it every single day and work as hard as I can, and we’ll see on game day.”
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