Everybody — reporters, fans, pals, the mayor — goes gonzo about 2,000. But honestly, hand over heart, the number Kade Harrington has in his crosshairs right now is 535.
As in pounds.
“That’s my goal,” Division I’s top returning rusher explained, noting that he’s cranking 510-ish pounds on squats to start April, up from the 505 range at this time a year ago. “It’s one of those lifts that I enjoy doing. Most people don’t enjoy it. I consistently enjoy working on that football speed and strength and legs are such an important part of football.”
Few legs last autumn were as important — or straight-up nasty — in college football as the pair of pistons that Lamar’s 5-9, 190-pound running back unleashed on the Southland Conference.
As a junior, the Kingwood, Texas native rolled up a school-record 2,092 rushing yards in 2015, becoming just the seventh player in NCAA Division I history to top 2,000 yards in 10 games. When the dust settled, Harrington had run for 21 touchdowns and set per-game Southland records in rushing yards (190.2) and points scored (12.5).
He finished a narrow second to Eastern Washington’s Cooper Kupp in voting for STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year and was selected by fans as ASN’s FCS Player of the Year. In layman’s terms, what Christian McCaffrey (2,019 rush yards, eight rushing scores) is to Stanford, Harrington is to the Cardinals of Beaumont, Texas — the biggest fish in a small red pond.
“There’s no ego about him,” Lamar running backs coach Brian Morgan said of his star attraction. “He’s super humble with everything that went right for him this past year. He doesn’t talk about it, just goes about his business, working hard this spring and in the weight room.
“The crazy thing is, you just don’t realize who he is sometimes on campus, because he’s not physically a big guy or anything. He’s told a story where he’s gone to a couple of professors’ classes this last year and (even after) all this publicity, the guy would ask him if he played football. And he’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I played.’ He didn’t go into details or say, ‘Hey, I’m the running back.’ He’s handled it well. He’s handled it way, way better than any of us would.”
Exhibit A: After Harrington put up 347 yards on Oct. 10 against Abilene Christian — single-game Southland Conference and school records — and becoming Lamar’s all-time leading scorer in the process, more than a few national eyebrows went up. And former NFL wideout Donald Driver, an FCS standout himself at Alcorn State, sent over some love via Twitter:
347 yds rushing yards in one game. Congratulations kid! Maybe we will see u on Sunday. You get my vote. https://t.co/WhOyjz8RRB
— Donald Driver (@Donald_Driver80) October 13, 2015
“I thought that was extremely cool to have someone who’s been in the (NFL) and been for a long time and had a really good career (say that),” Harrington said. “I didn’t even see it straight away. I was told about it. That was a really, really cool, shocking moment for me. You know, if you watch football, who Donald Driver is. So that was a pretty cool experience.”
Exhibit B: On Feb. 16, when Beaumont declared Kade Harrington Day. While civic officials feted the junior and presented him with a copy of the official proclamation, Harrington did his darnedest to take everything in stride.
“And I got to meet the mayor and a bunch of judges from Beaumont,” he recalled. “That’s really exciting to see that many people with that much power in the city.”
Enough power to get you out of parking tickets for life?
“No,” Harrington chortled. “No perks like that.”
Everybody goes gonzo about 2,000, but all that attention has a downside, too. From the first snap of the summer, Harrington is a marked man, a little guy with a giant target on his back. Morgan has warned him to be ready, that there’s no way No. 8 is going to take anyone, anywhere by a lick of surprise.
“There’s no talk of 2,000 yards (again),” Morgan said. “I mean, we understand that this year is going to be even harder. (Other teams) are going to be sitting around all off-season, going back and watching film and trying to come up with a different game plan. There’s no doubt about it. It’s what we would do if somebody like that rushed for 200 yards, 300 yards against (us). ...
“As the season went on, we saw a little bit more exotic defenses, just because of the numbers we put up. So (coaches) aren’t going to let that happen two years in a row. We talk, realistically, (that) backing that up with a 1,000-yard year is a big deal. It’s going to be a really good year just to do that, just because of the defenses that you’re going to see.”
So the sleeves are up, and it’s back to work, back to prepping for the encore, back to smoothing over the rougher edges in the game. Spring is less about carries and scrimmage work — Morgan is saving Harrington’s treads for the games that count — and more about strength (hello, squats) and technique. He is polishing up on blocking, using form and leverage, things he can control, to help compensate for the thing (size) he can’t.
“Every year, I’ve gotten better at gaining more weight, to get yourself (ready for) those big boys running at you full-steam,” Harrington said. “That’s one of the things I pride myself on — it’s big, being a small guy and being able to pick up the blitzes.”
The trick, of course, is picking up strength while maintaining explosion, the ability to turn a little seam into a home run. Last season Harrington produced eight carries that went for at least 50 yards and three that went for at least 70. Harrington scored at least one touchdown against every Lamar opponent in 2015 — including No. 13 Baylor — except for one: then-unbeaten McNeese State (17 carries, 70 rushing yards) on Nov. 21.
“That turned out to be a lot (on) the offensive line making big ol’ gaps and holes for me,” Harrington said. “They made me look like a better back. Those guys were incredible up front.”
It takes a village. Even if the village sometimes gives him all sorts of guff about having a day named in his honor.
“Oh, everybody did,” Morgan laughed. “All the sports teams did. The other teams, the women’s sports, they tried getting out of workouts that day because it was Kade Harrington Day.
“He was kind of embarrassed because he’s not into that. He kind of thinks that day should go to somebody that’s done something special — not somebody that plays football.”
That said, the proclamation is treasured, and it always will be. But it’s also out of sight, out of mind.
“It’s on a shelf in my closet now,” he said. “I don’t have anything hanging up on my walls. I’m not that type of person.”
Everybody goes gonzo about 2,000. The only numbers Harrington cares about this fall are the ones on the scoreboard, shining above.
RUNNING BACKS TO WATCH IN 2016
An early list of 11 ASN-affiliated running backs to watch in 2016:
- Joel Bouagnon, Northern Illinois: The MAC’s top returning rusher rolled up 1,285 yards and 18 touchdowns for the MAC’s West Division contenders.
- Kareem Hunt and Terry Swanson, Toledo: The Rockets’ dynamic duo combined for 1,896 yards and 19 touchdowns (Hunt: 973, 12; Swanson: 923, 7), and Hunts has 20 100-yard games in his career.
- Ray Lawry, Old Dominion: Conference USA’s top returning rusher with 1,136 yards last season as a sophomore also scored 11 touchdowns and is a reason why the Monarchs hope to play in their first bowl game this season.
- Ito Smith, Southern Miss: Rushed for 1,128 yards and 10 touchdowns last season as a sophomore combines with QB Nick Mullens (4,476 yards, 38 touchdowns passing) to make the Golden Eagles C-USA’s team to beat.
- Anthony Wales, Western Kentucky: Averaged 7 yards and scored nine touchdowns on 155 carries in the Hilltoppers’ passing offense and may carry a bigger load as a senior this season with a new quarterback.
- Chase Edmonds, Fordham: The All-American led the Patriot League runner-up Rams’ potent offense as a sophomore with 1,648 yards and 20 touchdowns, both fourth in FCS, and should be even better with 10 starters back on offense.
- Cory Avery, Sam Houston State: The No. 7 leading rusher in FCS last season, and No. 2 in the Southland, after transferring from Kansas finished with 1,483 yards rushing, third most in school single-season history.
- Kendell Anderson, William & Mary: Has Tribe pointed toward a CAA Football run after rushing for 1,418 yards and 16 touchdowns last season, averaging 109.1 rushing yards per game.
- Derrick Craine, Chattanooga: The Southern Conference's leading rusher last year also set single-season school records with 1,251 rushing yards and 230 attempts and should help carry the load as Mocs replace QB Jacob Huesman.
- Detrez Newsome, Western Carolina: The Catamounts’ first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006 finished with 1,109 yards and nine touchdowns rushing as a sophomore last year, leading the SoCon with 100.8 yards per game.
Above and middle: Lamar’s fortunes in the Southland Conference rest on Kade Harrington, the runner-up for the 2015 STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year. (Courtesy Lamar Athletic)