Amy Donaldson, Deseret News
Nic Harris, senior, linebacker/quarterback
He’s in this to make our team better and to be the best teammate he can, and that’s what he is for our defense. —East defensive coordinator Gary Bowers

SALT LAKE CITY — When the East Leopards take the field at Rice-Eccles Stadium against the Bingham Miners on Friday at Rice-Eccles Stadium in the 6A championship game, one defensive player will have a drastically different role than the one he had when the Leopards won the 2016 4A title.

A year ago, senior Nic Harris made an emergency appearance at quarterback in the biggest game of the season. Having not gotten the starting job after a battle in camp, he stayed ready throughout the year in the event his name ever get called.

Then early in the third quarter of East’s semifinal blowout win over Maple Mountain starter Ben Ford went down with an elbow injury. Since Ford couldn’t go in the championship game the next week against Springville, Harris stepped in and spearheaded the Leopard option attack in a 48-20 victory.

Barring another setback for Ford, Harris won’t be asked to do that again on Friday, but he will be expected to produce as a middle linebacker, where he has come this season to be a crucial piece of an East defense that has given up just a shade over 19 points per game despite playing a rather daunting national schedule.

Having entered the season in a battle for a starting linebacker spot, Harris has tallied 74 tackles, three interceptions and a sack. Perhaps more importantly, he is a team captain who defensive coordinator Gary Bowers said has led the charge in making sure guys are in the right spots and he isn’t afraid to speak up when he feels there’s a problem.

“He just took defense to heart and worked his butt off to become the best linebacker he could,” Bowers said. “He’s gotten better and better every week, and we’re really proud of him.”

Ford echoed Bowers’ sentiments about the player who rose to the occasion in his place a year ago.

“Just this year playing linebacker, which is one of the biggest positions on our defense, he just has such a huge job, and he’s doing a fantastic job,” Ford said. “I’m really proud of him. He’s such a great leader, too. He’s the kind of guy that makes people want to work harder.”

Perhaps one thing that makes Harris’ role as a team captain for the Leopards unique is the fact that unlike a number of his fellow defenders, he doesn’t have any scholarship offers.

“He’s not in this to get offers,” Bowers said. “He’s in this to make our team better and to be the best teammate he can, and that’s what he is for our defense.”