Tuesday, September 2, 2014
For an encore, 'Big Snacks' wants sacks
By Rich Cimini
Damon "Big Snacks" Harrison earned his nickname, one of the best in sports, because he loves to eat. But you can't do what he's done, overcoming a snub at every level of football, with an appetite limited to food.
Harrison always wants more for himself, and we're not talking Big Macs. One year after establishing himself as one of the premier run-stopping defensive linemen in the NFL, the New York Jets' nose tackle enters the 2014 season with a craving to become a better pass-rusher.
Snacks wants sacks.
And he expects to get some.
Damon Harrison worked on becoming a better pass-rusher this offseason.
"I'll be a whole lot better," said Harrison, who recorded only one sack last season in primarily a first- and second-down role. "This year, the production in the pass-rushing area should go well. I worked on it a lot in the offseason, and I'm seeing the improvement. The coaches like what they see."
At home in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Harrison dabbled in boxing, unleashing punches into mitts held by his instructor. At 6-foot-4, 350 pounds, he'd be in the super-heavyweight division. The idea, of course, was to improve his hand quickness. Despite a successful 2013, his first year as a starter, he learned that trying to beat a guard or center with slow hands is like taking a knife to a gun fight.
"Last year, I was out there on the fly, just pretty much trying to bully people," he said. "In the NFL, you can't do that."
Harrison moves exceptionally well for a man of his size -- in college, he was able to do 360-degree dunks -- but his athleticism didn't translate into pressure on the quarterback. In 226 pass-rushing opportunities, he generated only nine hurries, according to the stats-based website Pro Football Focus.
It's rare to find a nose tackle that can pressure the quarterback on a consistent basis. Harrison gets that, but he also has a desire to become a well-rounded player. It showed up in the preseason, as he demonstrated improvement as a pass-rusher. You saw better technique disengaging from blocks and you saw a better closing burst.
His teammates would like to see Harrison get more pass-rushing chances in sub packages.
"He proved that he's one of our most valuable players," linebacker Demario Davis said. "When somebody is one of your most valuable players, you can't take him off the field.
"The more we keep him out there on pass plays, it's going to help us even more because he gets good penetration," Davis continued. "It's going to open up lanes for our ends and it's going to push the quarterback out of the pocket."
Rex Ryan acknowledged that Harrison "isn't just a big slug. He's a big, athletic guy, and he can push the pocket." The problem is, how does he fit into the nickel package?
"Who are you taking off the field?" Ryan asked. "Sheldon Richardson? Mo Wilkerson? That's what you're balancing."
Nevertheless, Harrison can help as a first- and second-down pass-rusher. His true value, though, is clogging the A and B gaps, stifling the running game -- and that will be huge in Week 1 against the Oakland Raiders, who will attack on the ground with Darren McFadden, Maurice Jones-Drew and Marcel Reese.
Harrison was the highest-rated defensive tackle against the run last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Asked how he ranked in the Rex Ryan ratings, the coach smiled and said, "Pretty darn good."
Snacks was one of the feel-good stories in 2013, claiming the starting job after Kenrick Ellis went down with a preseason back injury. Harrison is a modern-day "Rudy," except a lot bigger.
He was cut twice by his middle-school team and became a water boy. He wasn't recruited out of high school. He was a junior-college reject. He stocked shelves at a Wal-Mart, making $14 an hour. He got a shot at William Penn University, a NAIA school in Iowa. He dominated, but he still was undrafted in 2012. He signed with the Jets, receiving a $7,000 bonus.
Now he's one of their best players, in the final year of his contract, destined for a large pay day.
"It's an honor that someone would take the time and acknowledge what a nose tackle does, because a lot of people don't know," said Harrison, alluding to the PFF rankings. "Yeah, I think I'm pretty good stopping the run. Do I consider myself the best? I mean, I don't know. I don't watch too many guys."
The Jets led the league in fewest yards per rush last season, and that doesn't happen without Harrison in the middle, doing the dirty work.
"Everybody talks about Mo and Sheldon -- they're phenomenal players -- but a big part of our run-stopping defense comes from Snacks and Calvin Pace," Davis said.
Pace, the strong-side linebacker, sets the edge and forces runners to cut back to the inside. That's where Harrison is lurking, ready to gobble them up.
Nose tackle is a no-glory position, but Harrison has developed a following. With a nickname like Big Snacks, how can you not be admired? He said he's almost always recognized when he goes to a gas station or a grocery store. Imagine when he starts sacking the quarterback.