ATLANTA — The physical changes 20 months later are obvious.
Against Alabama in the national semifinals here in 2016, Nick Harris was a 270-pound true freshman making just the fourth start of his career as the Washington Huskies’ right guard. In hindsight, he admitted he was overwhelmed playing for the first time against a defense of that stature on a stage that grand.
Against No. 9 Auburn on Saturday, in the most important season opener Washington’s ever had, Harris will make his debut as the Huskies’ new center. He’s 30 pounds heavier than he was when he lined up against Alabama and, just as important, he’s more self-assured, more relaxed than he was then.
“It’s as much mental as it is physical,” said Harris said this week. “Obviously, I’ve gained weight. Obviously, I’ve played more. That stage was a lot for me. I had just turned 18 before the game. I was barely out of high school playing against guys about to go in the NFL. It was like a shocking moment.
“But now, playing in those types of games, it’s more of a relaxed focus when I go into those games. It’s about trying to be assignment perfect and communicating, rather than me just worrying so much. That’s how I was: just worrying every play. I’ve realized it’s OK to make mistakes; you just have to make sure you’re going full speed and making sure everyone’s on the same page.”
The offensive line as a whole has undergone similar transformation — if not quite as dramatic as Harris’ — and the No. 6 Huskies hope that will produce better results against another stout SEC defense Saturday afternoon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Against Alabama, the Huskies’ five starting offensive linemen had an average weight of 295 pounds. Today, they average 311 pounds.
Three linemen who started against Alabama are expected to start against Auburn: Harris and the two senior tackles, Trey Adams and Kaleb McGary, though there is some question about Adams’ availability in his return from knee surgery. Sophomore left guard Luke Wattenberg gained experience in 2017 filling in at left tackle and Adams. And redshirt freshman Jaxson Kirkland is expected to make his UW debut as the starting right guard against Auburn.
They are the backbone of the UW offense — leading the way for senior running back Myles Gaskin — and they’ll be up against the strength of the Auburn defense, its front seven. Senior Dontavius Russell and junior Derrick Brown, both listed at 320 pounds, are two of the best tackles in the SEC.
“We’ve been through Bama and Penn State — two excellent teams — and we’ve seen a lot in between,” McGary said. “I think we’re all excited to get another chance at a big-time team and prove our mettle. Having seen all the stuff we have, I think we’re better prepared.”
The Huskies know they have to run the ball against Auburn, something they couldn’t do against Alabama in the 24-7 loss in the Peach Bowl. Gaskin gained just 34 yards on 10 carries — the lowest output of his career in a game in which he’s had more than five touches — and the Huskies had a net total of 44 yards on 29 rushes (which accounts for Alabama’s five sacks of Jake Browning).
Gaskin said the Huskies “absolutely” have something to prove Saturday.
“Personally, I feel like we don’t get enough respect as the Pac-12 and I don’t think we get enough as a team.,” he said. “I don’t want it given to us, either. Absolutely not. I think we need to go out there and earn it every single play, and I like that. I kind of want people to think we’re not that good. I really do. But, I mean, in the past we’ve had some good years and we’re starting to get some more spotlight, or whatever you want to call it. But we haven’t done anything yet. This team has not done a single thing in the grand scheme of things.
“Yeah, we’ve got some guys who have played a good amount of football, but we haven’t done anything yet and I think we’re all really ready to go out there and prove it, make some plays and make a statement.”
And it will have to start on the ground for the Huskies.
“For the O-line, that’s big-time football,” McGary said. “That’s the exciting part. That’s mano a mano, that’s you and me and let’s see who wins. That’s the fun stuff.
Harris was a no-star recruit in high school — until UW came along, his only scholarship offers were from Cal Poly and New Hampshire. He then became just the second true freshman offensive lineman to every play for Petersen (Adams being the other). He’s more confident now, and confident that will lead to better results Saturday.
“We’ve just got to go in there,” he said, and execute how we’ve been executing in practices and I think we’ll have a good ballgame on our hands, definitely.”