Florham Park, NJ – In a defensive front that includes three former first round picks, Damon Harrison could easily have become an afterthought.
Instead, the undrafted defensive tackle out of William Penn University is the talk of a revamped Jets defense.
“He’s playing lights-out football for us,” said veteran linebacker David Harris. “He’s a huge part of this defense.”
At 350 pounds, Damon “Big Snacks” Harrison, as he’s affectionately been nicknamed, is definitely a huge part of the Jets defense in more ways than one.
Playing only a few plays in five games a year ago, Harrison took a big step forward in the offseason, training with friend and teammate Kendrick Ellis.
Ellis, a third round pick in 2011, was the projected starter at nose tackle heading into the season, impressing head coach Rex Ryan during training camp. Snacks stepped in as the starter only after Ellis injured his back and was sidelined indefinitely.
Wally Pipping his friend, so to speak.
“Sometimes adversity to somebody gives opportunity to others,” said Ryan on Wednesday. “Obviously, Snacks has taken advantage of it and is doing a tremendous job.”
Harrison hasn’t just been an adequate fill in, either. Pro Football Focus rates him as a top-5 defensive tackle, naming him as the top interior defensive lineman in all of football for Week 3.
“He’s probably one of the best nose tackles in the league, in my opinion,” said fellow undrafted defensive lineman Leger Douzable. “You can’t really put one person on him and block him, it’s not going to happen. He’s made a big impact, especially in the run.”
An effective run stuffer, even a fantastic one, is not the most high profile gig on a football team, as casual fans tend to key in on flashier defensive plays like sacks and interceptions.
But Harrison’s presence in the trenches has paved the way for a revival on the defensive front, turning around the 26th best unit against the run a year ago, into a run stuffing, playmaking machine.
And while Ellis isn’t the starter anymore, his slow return to the lineup gives the Jets quality depth and scary potential.
“I give a lot of credit to that defensive line, especially Kendrick Ellis and Damon Harrison,” said Harris, who had perhaps the best game of his seven-year career against the Bills, thanks in part to the effort of the guys up front. “They’re keeping guys off of me and taking up double teams so it allows me to run free to the ball. I give all the credit to the d-line.”
After three weeks, Football Outsiders ranked the Jets defensive line second best in the league against the run based on adjusted line yards, a massive jump from a year ago when they were ranked 19th.
Harrison’s story is reminiscent of ex-Jet, and fan favorite, Sione Pouha, a big nose tackle who stepped into the spotlight after Kris Jenkins went down with an ACL injury.
“I tried to emulate everything that he did,” said Harrison of Pouha. The two played together a year ago and still keep in touch, according to Harrison.
But most of all, it’s been an increase in experience and confidence that has keyed Snacks’ breakout.
“I know exactly what I’m supposed to do,” said Harrison. “Last year I was having problems with that … the coaches didn’t have as much confidence in me because I wasn’t confident in myself. But now, this year, I know what I’m doing and I’m a whole lot more confident.”
And, boy, does it show.