Questions about the back seven of Oklahoma's defense don't faze senior strong safety Nic Harris.
He knows about real adversity. So he's not sweating concerns that the defense, which gave up 48 points in a blowout Fiesta Bowl loss to West Virginia and ranked 60th nationally against the pass last season, could be the downfall of this season's OU team in a conference full of powerful offenses.
Harris is too busy trying to find solutions. That's what he's been doing since being born to a 17-year-old father and 16-year-old mother and bouncing from the house of one relative to another in Louisiana until the age of 15.
That's when he started taking jobs to help provide for himself while living with LaQuanda Harrell, a woman he calls his stepmother. She never married Harris' father, but did have a daughter with Harris' father – one of Harris' eight siblings.
"I never asked, 'God, why me?' " Harris said. "My stepmother was never married to my father, so I wasn't her child. I didn't think she needed to provide for me, so I went out and got jobs and tried to provide for myself as best as I could. She had a daughter she needed to take care of. I never saw my life as a crutch. I just pretty much kept the same attitude through life."
Last season, Harris was named to the American Football Coaches Association Good Works Team for his role as president of Bridge Builders, a group of black student-athletes in Oklahoma. Bridge Builders mentors elementary school kids in Norman as well as residents of the Brookhaven Nursing Center. The group also serves lunch to those in need in the community and helps raise money to feed 10 families on Thanksgiving.
"The guy is just an incredible young man, very bright and a great leader," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "He is a community leader with a great heart. You can't find a better guy than Nic."
Stoops said Harris' responsible nature makes him a perfect fit to anchor the back seven of a defense that lost linebacker Curtis Lofton, who was the Big 12 defensive player of the year, and cornerback Reggie Smith, both of whom left early for the NFL. In all, the back seven has five new members – two linebackers and three defensive backs.
"Nic just needs to do what we ask him to do and that's get calls to his corners, communicate with his 'backers and safeties and make sure everyone's on the same page," Stoops said. "That's a big factor. If a team makes a motion adjustment or we're switching coverages, Nic needs to make sure everyone gets it."
Harris' job is formidable. As good as Oklahoma was in beating Missouri twice last season and claiming the first back-to-back Big 12 crowns in league history, the Sooners gave up an average 228.1 yards per game through the air. The defense also had to live with the shellacking by West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl. It marked OU's fourth consecutive loss in a BCS bowl. In those losses, the defense has given up an average of 41 points.
"It leaves a sour taste, but if you live in the past, you'll never make it to the future," Harris said. "Right now, we're focused on this upcoming season and making sure we win our last game."
Heading into Saturday's season opener against Division I-AA Chattanooga, Harris isn't sure who the cornerbacks would be lining up next to him. That's how much competition there has been in camp, though sophomore Dominique Franks and junior Brian Jackson seem likely to start Saturday.
And redshirt freshman Sam Proctor's emergence has led to speculation that senior Lendy Holmes could move from free safety back to corner, where Holmes started 11 games in 2006.
"We're only as good as our weakest link, and right now our weakest link is extremely good," Harris said.
"If the other guys are playing hard, we'll be able to cover up some mistakes that are bound to happen back there," coordinator Brent Venables said. "It's a tremendous advantage to have a front four like we have. Maybe those guys can take some of the pressure off the back seven. But our front four can only do so much."
Harris knows adversity, and says there is no reason to worry.
"We're grinding and trying to sharpen that desire so we can find the best 11 to help us reach the national championship game," Harris said. "That's where we want to be."