Antioch’s Najee Harris, nation’s top recruit, on big stage with ’Bama

Antioch’s Najee Harris, nation’s top recruit, on big stage with ’Bama

Monday night, for instance.

The stage cannot get much bigger than it will be at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. That’s where Harris and Alabama will square off against Georgia for college football’s national championship.

The Crimson Tide’s return to the title game punctuates a dizzying ride for Harris, the country’s No. 1 recruit in the class of 2017. He didn’t play often as an Alabama freshman — he’s essentially the fourth-string running back, behind juniors Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough and sophomore Josh Jacobs — but he made a distinct impression.

Harris gained 306 yards on 55 carries this season, a 5.6 average, and scored three touchdowns. He caught six passes, including a 22-yard gain on a swing pass in last week’s national semifinal victory over Clemson. And he plays on Alabama’s punt return and punt coverage teams.

So even if Harris seldom touches the ball in college football’s marquee game, rest assured: He has planted himself in prime position to become the featured tailback for one of the nation’s most storied programs.

“He’s motivated, because he sees the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Antioch offensive coordinator Brett Dudley, who routinely trades text messages with Harris. “Anybody as competitive as Najee would want the ball, but he wants to win games. That’s his first priority.”

Harris, the object of an intense recruiting battle, ultimately chose Alabama over Michigan and other high-profile schools because he craved competition. He wanted to play for the most successful program in the country in recent years, in the most rugged conference.

Part of the deal was waiting his turn in the SEC powerhouse’s crowded backfield.

The good news for Harris: Scarbrough and Damien Harris are expected to leave for the NFL. That means the Antioch High alum and Jacobs probably will divide most of the carries next season, and Najee Harris could emerge as the undisputed No. 1 back in 2019.

He put together two strong games in early-season blowouts, while Jacobs recovered from an injury — 70 yards on 13 carries against Fresno State on Sept. 9, then 70 yards on 10 carries at Vanderbilt on Sept. 23. He also had 50 yards on seven carries against Tennessee on Oct. 21.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Was it the right decision?’” Dudley said. “Absolutely. He’s set up for a great future.”

Alabama fans seem to agree. Harris’ mom, Tianna Hicks, moved to Birmingham last year to stay near her son, and she attended all but one game this season. She doesn’t hide her pride: Hicks wears a No. 22 Alabama jersey with “Najee’s Mom” across the back.

Hicks often wandered around the stadium during games, and other ’Bama-clad spectators approached her to offer encouragement.

“They would say, ‘Be patient, he’s going to be awesome, I can’t wait to see him next year,’” Hicks said. “He was a little frustrated after the (semifinal) game in New Orleans, and people were still coming up to him asking for autographs. It was crazy to see that, when he’s not playing much.”

Alabama freshmen are not allowed to speak to the media, but Hicks acknowledged this year’s reduction in playing time was uncomfortable for Harris. He averaged 268 carries in his three full seasons at Antioch, so 55 carries scattered over 13 games is unfamiliar territory.

“For him and all the freshmen, it’s kind of frustrating to sit,” Hicks said. “They’ve been starting and playing the entire game for most of their high school careers, then in college you’re not playing as much. I’ve had to remind him (to be patient) a couple times, but he comes back around and he’s cool with it.”

Harris’ inaugural season at Alabama had several cool moments. One occurred Sept. 30 during a 66-3 home victory over Ole Miss.

Dudley, two other Panthers coaches and school principal Louie Rocha traveled to Tuscaloosa for the game (the Antioch football team had a bye that week). They spent more than two hours catching up with Harris the night before the game; he took them on an impromptu tour of the Tide’s elaborate football facilities.

The next day, Harris scored his first collegiate touchdown on a 4-yard, third-quarter run — in the end zone near where the group from Antioch was sitting, on the 10-yard line about 20 rows from the field.

Now, a few months later, Rocha and the coaches are eager to watch Harris flash across their TV screens Monday night, even if it’s only a brief appearance.

“It’s cool to see a freshman in the national championship game, this kid who seemed like a regular teenager walking the hallways at Antioch,” Rocha said. “We’re all watching and cheering him on. We’re all confident his time is coming.”

Ron Kroichick is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: rkroichick@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ronkroichick

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