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Nov. 18, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Forget for a moment the enormous impact he’s had on the football field this season: the interceptions, the tackles, the pass breakups, the leadership provided from his spot at strong safety.

What makes junior Anthony Harris so valuable to the UVa program is the example he sets for his teammates off the field.

“He’s really on point,” said Natalie Fitzgerald, director of academic affairs for the football team. “He realizes that he is a high-profile name. He’s very personable, he’s never met a stranger, he’s very respectful, and he truly understands what it means to protect your personal brand, what it means to protect the University of Virginia’s brand, what it means to represent the academic community as well as what it means to represent the athletic community.”

Early this school year, Fitzgerald asked Harris to speak to some of the younger players on the team. His maturity and insight impressed her, especially in his advice to true freshman Tim Harris (no relation).

“He understands that with every decision, with every choice, there are consequences, repercussions, there are things you have to think about,” Fitzgerald said. “You can’t just think in the moment, and he gets all that.”

The 6-1, 190-pound Harris goes by “Ant.” He has fans inside and outside the McCue Center.

“That kid is what college football’s all about, the way he conducts himself, the way he leads other kids,” said Evan Marcus, Virginia’s strength and conditioning for football. “When you’re talking about athletics in college, you’re talking about the development of the person and the legacy that person will leave behind. This kid has made an impact on his teammates. He’s a model to look up to for young guys. He does everything right. He’s just one of those kids that you’re happy to be associated with.

“He’s never not prepared. He manages his day-to-day life very well.”

This is not a new development for Harris, who was born in Richmond and later moved to Chesterfield County, where he starred in football and basketball at L.C. Bird High School.

“I think it’s always just naturally been in me,” Harris said. “My mom always says when she talks to people how she just hasn’t had any problems with me. I seem to always do what I’m supposed to do. Even growing up on my other athletic teams, I was always the guy that took pride in helping my team get better, and leading by example and not just vocally.”

This is his second season as a starter at Virginia. As a true freshman, Harris played primarily on special teams, but the 2011 season played a critical role in his development.

“He got a chance to sit behind Rod McLeod,” said Anthony Poindexter, who coaches Virginia’s safeties.

Now a starting safety for the St. Louis Rams, McLeod was a senior at Virginia in 2011, and Harris benefited from his mentoring.

“I think the most valuable thing that happened for him was he got a chance to see McLeod, the way McLeod practiced, the way McLeod played, the way he prepared for each week and his love for the game,” Poindexter said. “He’s not Rod in the sense of the skill set, because they’re two different bodies, but in a lot of ways he studies the game, he understands the game, like Rod.”

In 2012, Harris started every game at free safety and had a solid season. He finished third on the team in tackles, broke up three passes, caused one fumble and had one interception, which he returned 37 yards.

After last season, head coach Mike London changed defensive coordinators, replacing Jim Reid with Jon Tenuta. Harris moved to strong safety this year, and he’s thrived under Tenuta, a former UVa defensive back.

“Going into the season, I think the kid wanted to get himself around the ball more,” Poindexter said, and that’s what has happened.

With seven interceptions, Harris is tied for the national lead with Florida Atlantic’s D’Joun Smith. He’s tied for second at UVa in pass breakups, with six, and has forced a fumble and blocked a punt.

Harris, who has one sack, is third in tackles (74) for Virginia (2-8 overall, 0-6 ACC), which plays at Miami (7-3, 3-3) at noon Saturday.

“The guy’s done a great job for us,” Tenuta said. “Obviously he’s a guy who’s a student of the game. To me he’s a great kid, a great guy to be around. He understands football, understands what we try to do and understands what our opponent tries to do.

“And he’s a leader on the field. Obviously there’s a few plays I know he wants back, but we all want plays back. He’s just a great kid.”

Poindexter said: “He really understands football. He loves playing the game of football. Each week I can just see him getting better and better in knowing what teams are trying to do.”

Plays that last season were pass breakups for Harris “this year have been interceptions,” he noted, “which I think comes from confidence, film study, being more mature, knowing where everybody is on the defense, where I fit on the defense. And just knowing also a little bit more about what the offense is trying to do.

“So I think in that aspect I’ve grown as far as understanding and knowledge of the game. And, also, the scheme is a good scheme. It puts me around the ball a lot. Coach Tenuta, has also expanded my knowledge of the game, and his scheme of pressuring guys has given me the opportunity to go out and make some plays.”

Harris’ most memorable play came in the Aug. 31 season-opener against BYU at Scott Stadium. With about 2:50 left, UVa trailed 16-12 when the Cougars opted to pass on third-and-6 from their 34-yard line.

Quarterback Taysom Hill’s pass glanced off tailback Jamaal Williams’ hands and into the arms of Harris. He returned the interception 6 yards before deciding, as a Cougar started to wrap him up, to improvise.

The BYU player “kind of spun me around a little bit, and when I spun around it almost felt like the game slowed down in slow motion, and I saw Henry there with his arms open, so I decided to lateral it softly and just hope he caught it,” Harris recalled.

Middle linebacker Henry Coley did his part. He gathered in the lateral from Harris and rumbled 27 yards to the BYU 13. Moments later, tailback Kevin Parks ran 13 yards for a touchdown, and the Wahoos came away with a stunning victory.

“Looking back at it now at the tape, it could have been a costly situation for us,” Harris said of his lateral, “but I just felt like the momentum for the defense was going to so well and there was an opportunity.”

As a boy, Harris dreamed of making plays on the court, not on the field. In high school, he made the varsity basketball team as a freshman and as a senior helped the Skyhawks advance to the state Group AAA championship game. (Along the way, Bird beat a T.C. Williams team whose big men included Jay Whitmire, now a starting offensive guard at UVa.)

By his senior season, Harris regularly lined up at center for Bird, often having to guard much taller players. That didn’t bother him.

“I kind of fit in where the coach wanted me to,” Harris recalled.

He never lost his love for hoops — Harris is a regular at UVa games at John Paul Jones Arena — but as he grew older, he said, “I realized that there were plenty of 6-2 point guards walking around, so I figured I’d try my hand at football.”

Harris did not go out for football as a ninth-grader at Bird. He was recovering from a knee injury and more interested in basketball that fall. But his friends urged him to try football, and so did David Bedwell, head coach of one of the Richmond area’s most powerful high school programs.

“He joked around with me and told me I was scared,” Harris said, smiling.

Harris, of course, accepted Bedwell’s challenge. As a 10th-grader, Harris played wide receiver and cornerback for the Skyhawks. He took over as starting quarterback as a junior, but had no illusions about playing that position in college.

The `Hoos are happy to have him at safety, where Harris has established himself as an All-ACC candidate. He’s happy to be at UVa.

“Obviously the academic part is great,” said Harris, a sociology major. “I’ve had the opportunity to accomplish so much and take different classes and just broaden my horizons. Socially, there’s a lot of great people here from different places all over the world. I’ve had a chance to meet people from countries I never would have had the opportunity to have met without coming to the University.

“Obviously, athletically I haven’t exactly accomplished all the things I want to accomplish, but I feel like we’re moving in the right direction as a team and as an organization to accomplish those things.”

In the meantime, he’ll continue to cheer for his fellow student-athletes.

“I’m a pretty social guy,” Harris said. “I know a number of people on the different teams, and whenever I’m free or have time, I try to go out and support them. I’m pretty good friends with Justin Anderson and Joe Harris and those guys, and also I’m friends with some of the guys on the swim team, and some of the girls on field hockey and volleyball. I just try to be a big supporter of UVa athletics.”

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