Harris tackles bigger role with UFL’s DC Defenders

by | Mar 29, 2024 | ALLFFP, Sports

As he scanned the horizon, a vast artificial skyline that once served as the backdrop to “The Greatest Show on Turf,” Deion Harris could feel the proximity to his NFL dream. 

Prior to last spring, Harris, then a defensive quality control coach for the XFL’s DC Defenders, had never set foot in a pro stadium. Simply standing on the sidelines at The Dome at America’s Center, the former home of the St. Louis Rams, underscored how far the Stafford County native and North Stafford High School graduate had come in a short period of time. 

“I just realized how close I am to really achieving my goal,” Harris said. “Being in that stadium was a ‘wow’ moment for me.” 

This spring has brought a new title for Harris, and a new league for his team. In December, two previously-competing spring leagues — the XFL and USFL — announced they’d merged into a new eight-team organization called the United Football League. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is a co-owner.  

“It’s going to be really good football,” said Harris, who was promoted to linebackers coach following the merger. “There’s a lot of people that are really close and should be in the NFL, and we get first pick on all of those guys.” 

Harris played college football at Virginia State University, where he majored in mechanical engineering. As his playing career wound down, however, he found he was far more interested in drawing up defensive plays than designing schematics. After graduating in 2020, he joined his former head coach Reggie Barlow’s staff as a graduate assistant at VSU.  

Typically, GAs spend their week drawing up play cards and working on the computer, completing what Barlow refers to as “odds and ends jobs.” Shortly into his time on staff, Harris became a valued contributor during defensive meetings as well as a hands-on presence on the practice field. 

“I got really lucky, because most graduate assistants, you’re told to shut up and not really say as much,” Harris said. “But [Virginia State defensive line coach] Jeremy Watkins taught me a lot, and because I was receptive of it, he gave me a lot of freedom.” 

Added Barlow: “It was early on as a GA that we realized he’s going to be a coach.”  

When Barlow was hired as the Defenders’ head coach in March 2022, he didn’t balk at bringing the relatively inexperienced Harris aboard his new staff.  

At 26, Harris is the same age as some of the players in his linebackers room with the Defenders. In fact, running back Darius Hagans was one of Harris’ teammates at Virginia State, where he played tight end before moving to the defensive line.  

“I remember Deion as being someone anybody could talk to, offense or defense,” Hagans said. “Most of the time, defense talked to defense and offense talked to offense. But Deion was pretty cool with everybody.” 

Defenders defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who won a Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints in 2009, estimates that he’s worked with 150-160 assistant coaches over a 40-plus year coaching career. Williams doesn’t view Harris’ youth as a liability. 

“The biggest thing in the world, is anybody, I don’t care what your age is but especially in professional sports, is that they can smell BS a mile off,” said Williams, who previously coached in Washington as the [formerly] Redskins’ defensive coordinator from 2004-07. 

“Every time something comes out of your mouth, how was your demonstration, your description and how do you make sure they understand what you want them to do schematically, technique-wise, fundamentals-wise and toughness-wise? Then, when you back up what you say and have video. Those are the things he’s been able to do, and never one time has he [said] something he didn’t mean.” 

The Defenders, who open their season on the road against the San Antonio Brahmas this Sunday at noon, feature on their roster a pair of ex-Washington players in defensive backs DJ Swearinger and Montae Nicholson.  

But it’s not just players who are vying for a chance to reach the sport’s highest level, either in the form of a second chance — or in Harris’ case — an opening. Barlow tells everyone from his assistant coaches to his general manager and support staff to “show your stuff,” in hopes of earning NFL opportunities down the road.  

For his part, Harris grew up idolizing longtime Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who hails from Hampton.  

“That’s who I’m trying to be, that’s who I want to be,” Harris said of Tomlin. “A majority of our coaches, their end goal is to be in the NFL, and my end goal is to be an NFL head coach one day.” 

Williams, who vows to return to the NFL as a head coach (a role he held previously with the Buffalo Bills from 2001-03), likes to say that “every day is an interview.”

Harris, then, is auditioning daily for an eventual spot on an NFL coaching staff.  

“I’ll tell you this: he’s on my list now forever,” Williams said. “All of a sudden, when I go someplace … at that [NFL] level, he’ll be on that list.” 

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