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Darius Harris discusses his long path to Chiefs’ linebacker rotation

Now starting in place of Willie Gay, Jr, the former undrafted free agent is coming off a big game.

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

After Week 2’s 27-24 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers, the NFL dealt a heavy blow to the Kansas City Chiefs defense. Linebacker Willie Gay Jr. — who totaled 16 tackles in the team’s first two games — was suspended four games stemming from a January arrest.

Reserve linebacker Darius Harris has taken over much of Gay’s role in the past three games. During Monday night’s 30-29 win over the Las Vegas Raiders, Harris played 69% of the defensive snaps — totaling 10 tackles and registering his first career sack against Raiders quarterback Derek Carr.

Harris has long been preparing for his current opportunity.

“Even before I got the chance to start,” started Harris, while speaking to media before Wednesday’s practice, “I prepared myself and kind of went about it as if I was a starter. So, when opportunity came — it was just time for me to actually showcase it to others who are not in the building and who are not around.

“So far, everything’s been good — I’m feeling confident, the guys around me have been giving me that confidence boost, and we’ve just been making plays all together. With the guys around it makes it easier for me.”

Three years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine Harris as a reliable defensive contributor. The Middle Tennessee State product was not selected in the 2019 NFL Draft. While he joined the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent, he spent his entire rookie season on the non-football injury (NFI) list due to shoulder surgery. He appeared in 11 games for the Chiefs over the past two seasons — before making this year’s squad out of camp.

Even though he spent his rookie season with the training staff, Harris does not feel it was a wasted year.

“I definitely learned a lot,” he claimed. “Just how to be a pro — how to go about the game. The big thing I took from that year was the mental aspect of it — just learning plays, learning how we run plays, how we call things. Kind of seeing things from the defensive coordinator’s standpoint. Just understanding what to look for when I’m watching film – how to evaluate players, how to evaluate tape, things of that sort.

“It helped me grow mentally in the football aspect — since I wasn’t able to do as much physical.”

After the Chiefs parted ways with multiple longtime linebackers last offseason, Harris knew this season might bring a better opportunity. He adjusted accordingly.

“I think I just took my mental game up some more,” he declared. “I just knew what I needed to work on — and knew this was the going to be the year that I needed to get on the field. I knew how things worked out, it was going to be a big chance for me to get on the field. Honestly, just taking that next step as a player — mentally and physically.”

He also recognizes the importance of playing multiple roles in taking that next step.

“You can’t just be still at one thing,” noted Harris. “Obviously, to get on the field you’ve got to be ready — for me — at any position. That way I’m able to be the next man up and be able to get me some playing time, whether it’s at the MIKE, SAM, or WILL [linebacker positions].

“You know — just being versatile. I feel like that’s a good trait and being able to understand the assignment and execution of each position in order to get on the field and make plays.”

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts Robert Scheer/IndyStar Staff-USA TODAY Sports

Execution will be even more important this week as the Chiefs welcome the Buffalo Bills — widely currently considered the best team in the league. Harris knows where his unit’s focus has to start.

“The pass game for sure,” he confirmed. “They have athletes at the quarterback position, receiver, running back. They have a very good team, so just making sure we’re on top of our things.”

He also recognizes the unique challenge presented by Bills quarterback Josh Allen.

“We just have to defined in our assignments and in our pass rush lanes,” he said of containing Allen. “Just making sure that everyone’s on point, everyone’s where they’re supposed to be. Just try to bottle him in because if we’re undisciplined — he can break it out of the gate and hurt us big time.”

While Harris was not on the roster for January’s legendary playoff win against the Bills, he was on the practice squad and a part of the team. He understands the emotions of that night — and how it still weighs on the Bills.

“I know they’re coming for revenge,” he predicted. “They’re a good team. They’re hot — [with] good players on both sides of the ball. Come this weekend, we’ve just got to make sure we’re on top of it to try and get the same result as last year.”

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