SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — What would "The Natty" be without Cliff Harris? A lot less entertaining, that's for sure.
The cheeky cornerback known for bestowing the BCS national championship with a cute nickname came forward just briefly in the week leading up to Monday's big game between Oregon and Auburn, reminding everyone why he was so missed during a monthlong self-imposed vow of silence.
Harris, who once likened himself to the "cheese on top of the nachos," proclaimed that Oregon's defense was a "great white shark in the ocean, just swimming on the surface, eating everything that's in front of us."
His role? "The teeth."
Later, Harris thought better of what he'd said, and said he was just "a tooth" to give his teammates their due. But it was still good to have him back, if only for a little while. He spoke to reporters for about an hour on Friday.
Harris admits that he's a big talker. But the dreadlocked sophomore backs it up — most of the time — on the field. He has four punt returns for touchdowns this season, matching DeSean Jackson's Pac-10 record set at Cal in 2006.
Auburn coach Gene Chizik said Harris makes Oregon's punt return team of special concern.
"They will give him a crack that he can hit," Chizik said, "and when he sees it, he will hit it and it is hard to catch him."
Injuries in the defensive secondary forced Harris to come out of a redshirt year last season. In just eight games, he led the team with eight pass breakups. In the Rose Bowl against Ohio State, Harris turned heads with a 42-yard kickoff return.
This season, he made a splash in Oregon's season-opening win against New Mexico, returning two punts for touchdowns. Then he ran an interception back 76 yards for a score in a victory over Tennessee.
The Fresno, Calif., native has had five interceptions and leads the nation with 20 passes defended. He's also second in the country with an average of 19.5 yards on punt returns.
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound defensive back certainly hasn't been perfect. He wasn't even a starter at cornerback for the Ducks until midway through the season, and he made his share of mistakes. The most obvious was when he simply lost Arizona's Josh Criner, who broke out for an 85-yard touchdown reception against the Ducks.
But he's by far best known for being outspoken.
Legend has it that when he first arrived at Oregon, Harris introduced himself to the team by saying "My name is Cliff Harris and I'm here to lock (stuff) down."
Of course he didn't exactly use the word "stuff." The quote has so amused Ducks fans that a Facebook page was created in its honor.
He has been criticized for at times being a bit too talkative.
Just before the regular season finale, the annual Civil War game between Oregon and Oregon State, Harris suggested that the Beavers were like the "little brother" to the Ducks. Oregon State fans weren't pleased, and Harris was muzzled.
But he got his wish to go to what he had dubbed "the Natty" when the Ducks ultimately defeated the Beavers 37-20 to clinch a spot in the BCS title game. He was so happy he said he was speechless, stunning reporters who asked when was the last time he was at a loss for words.
"Probably when I came out of the womb," he said.Comment on this story
It was more of a surprise when Harris shut down in the long layoff before the BCS title game. Harris said it was for the best because he didn't want to be a distraction.
"Everybody kept coming up to me trying to get like the quote of the day," he explained.
So he was quite an attraction on media day, when all the Oregon players were obligated to face questions. Harris was back to delivering his witty soundbites and reporters stumbled over themselves trying to coax a Harris-ism from him.
He was asked if Oregon was planning anything special in those infamously closed practices this past week in Arizona.
"Buckle your seatbelts," he said, smiling.