Wally Buono is glad he was wrong about Andrew Harris.
Then the B.C. Lions head coach and general manager, Buono had a different vision for the Winnipeg native than the one that has played out since he became the club’s feature running back midway through the 2011 season.
“Smart as I was, I wanted to make a safety out of him,” said Buono, now the Lions’ GM and vice-president of operations. “I think it just shows you the kind of athlete Andrew is. Football has never been too big for him. It’s just finding a place for him.”
That place is in Vancouver for at least the next two seasons after the Lions signed Harris to a contract extension on Wednesday that will keep him with the team through 2015.
Harris was a junior football star in the province before signing with the Lions, first making the practice roster and then special teams.
“My career has been a bit of journey and I wouldn’t want to have it any other way,” Harris said as he met the media at the Lions’ practice facility. “It’s been ups and downs and that’s part of a career. The one nice thing about this is it’s another step to another chapter.”
The soon-to-be 27-year-old Harris decided to move to Vancouver full-time this off-season despite a trying 2013 campaign that saw B.C.’s running game struggle for long stretches.
“For me it’s a very good day, and I think for the province and the organization it’s a good day,” said Buono. “For an individual to call this place home after going back and forth I think speaks volumes for what Andrew wants to be a part of. In the organization, you want to keep your assets and he’s been a tremendous asset for us.”
The five-foot-11, 213-pound Harris has rushed for 2,568 yards on 481 carries (5.3-yard average) with 15 TDs during his career, quickly making him one of the premier Canadian running backs in the game.
“He’s an elite player,” said Lions head coach Mike Benevides. “He’s dynamic, and the combination of he and the other guys we’ve got on our roster will bode well for us.”
Harris rushed for 998 yards and seven touchdowns last season, while leading all CFL backs with 61 receptions for 513 yards. His 1,511 yards from scrimmage in 2013 not only led his team, it was more than 400 yards ahead of the next player.
But the Lions’ ground attack lost its way last season, going 10 games without a 100-yard rusher. Harris totalled just 10 yards on two separate occasions during that dry spell, but he never let the adversity affect him, at least in public.
“It was tremendously frustrating for all of us, not just Andrew,” said Benevides. “He was the byproduct of everything around him. The biggest thing that I think people discredit is the teammate that he is, the pro that he’s matured into.”
The addition of running back Stefan Logan, who started his career with the Lions back in 2008 before jumping to the NFL, and new blocking schemes on the leaky offensive line helped get the ground game back on track by October.
“At the end of the day there was still a solid nucleus. I had faith in the coaches, I had a feeling the coaches still had faith in me and it was just a matter of getting everything put together,” said Harris, who has never missed a game in his four CFL seasons. “Sometimes it takes a while to get things on the right course and get things going.
“That’s what makes a team and makes a brotherhood and a family. I really think that more than ever the nucleus of this team is really close and we’re building towards a championship team.”
Now the diminutive Logan and the power-running Harris are set to spend an entire season together sharing the workload for new offensive co-ordinator Khari Jones.
“It’s one of those things where someone makes a play, you want to make a play as well and we feed off each other,” said Harris. “That’s one side of it, and then staying healthy. We’re both going to be very fresh. It’s going to be a great season and I’m very excited about it.”
The pressure will be on to produce title-calibre results in 2014, with the Lions set to host the Grey Cup at B.C. Place Stadium in November.
Harris is one of the constants on a team that has seen a huge exodus of both assistant coaches and players this off-season following an 11-7 campaign that ended with a loss to the eventual Grey Cup-champion Saskatchewan Roughriders in the West Division semifinal.
“I’ve always been part of championship teams and this organization is looked on as a championship team. Any time you don’t get to the championship it’s unsuccessful,” said Harris. “That’s the goal. That’s the mindset. This 2014 season with the Grey Cup here is absolutely a redemption year.
“We want to be feared at the end of the season going into the playoffs.”