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Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib: Unlikely pair turned deadly duo

Look back at photos of the cornerback pair from their days as Jayhawks and their reunion in Denver this season.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – When Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib first met in 2007, they carried slightly different football pedigrees.

"I was like a little kid," Harris recalls, laughing. "I was 17 when I first showed up to KU and [Talib] was 'The Man' there.

"…I was just trying to find my way there at the time."

Talib had been named first-team All-Big 12 in 2006 as a sophomore after leading the country in passes defensed (28) and the conference in interceptions (six). He would go on to add five more picks (two for touchdowns) and even dabble at wide receiver (four TD catches) as a junior, finishing the year as Kansas' first unanimous All-American selection since Gale Sayers in 1964

But the biggest Jayhawk star in recent memory was more than willing to support the unheralded freshman, Harris, who had come to Kansas on his only scholarship offer out of high school. After JUCO transfer Kendrick Harper, who was penciled in as the No. 2 cornerback, went down with an injury before the season began, Talib took Harris under his wing.

"Chris had to step in, and I felt like it was my job to make sure he stepped in right," Talib remembers. "[I] kind of just made sure he played with that swag, made sure he knew everybody on the D had confidence in him.

"That was like my little brother there."

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The two parted ways after one season in Lawrence, but circuitous routes eventually reunited them in Denver.

Talib departed Kansas after his junior year and became the first player out of KU to be a first-round pick in 15 years, going 20th overall in the 2008 draft to the Buccaneers. While Talib collected 15 interceptions in his first three NFL seasons, Harris was grinding away at KU, playing safety when necessary and climbing to second in Jayhawks history in tackles.

The versatile, undersized corner was overlooked by teams come draft time and had to wait through the NFL's lockout before he could sign with a team, picking the Broncos shortly before training camp. In the years since, Harris battled to earn a special teams role, worked his way into a starting role on defense and overcame a torn ACL to earn a five-year extension he signed last week.

"It just goes to show you, it don't really matter how you do it, you've just got to get it done," Talib said of Harris' path to today's success. "My route was different than Chris. We're at the same spot now."

"Before this [year], my cousins and my family, they used to always joke around, 'What if y'all play together again?'" Harris said. "It's crazy that it actually happened."

With Talib on a six-year deal that he signed in March, the Broncos now have each member of the former Jayhawk duo under contract through the 2019 season. The likelihood of an All-KU starting cornerback pairing is beyond miniscule – only seven current NFL players are Kansas alums and three are on the Broncos: Talib, Harris and Steven Johnson.

But Talib and Harris also represent the rarity of a team signing two cornerbacks long term. Outside of the Broncos, only the Cowboys (Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick) and Packers (Tramon Williams, Sam Shields) have multiple cornerbacks currently signed to contracts of at least four years in length (excluding rookie deals).

"The passing game's a big part of the game right now and so you cannot have enough good cover guys," Executive Vice President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway said Monday. "To be able to have two guys like we have in Aqib and now Chris to be under contract, it's very, very important."

The value of the shutdown duo has been apparent this season, as the Broncos are tied for the league lead in passing yards per play allowed (5.74). Each corner has collected three interceptions – the pair even combined for one in Seattle, with Talib tipping a pass and Harris reeling it in – and Harris ranks as Pro Football Focus' top cornerback. Perhaps even more valuable is the versatility that the pair brings in their body types and styles of play, which seem as different as their college pedigrees.

The 6-foot-1, 205 pound Talib has excellent size for the position, with lanky arms that prove useful for press coverage and reaching to deflect passes away. Yet, he still has the athleticism and fluidity to make up ground or break on a football in a hurry.

That skillset lends itself to playing with an eye on the quarterback at times, as Talib did when he nabbed a fourth-quarter interception of Philip Rivers last Sunday.

Harris, meanwhile, noted Monday that he may always be "an underrated player just because of my size and the way I came into the league." He measured 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds at his pro day coming out of college, but more than makes up for it with an uber-competitive energy and crisp technique.

Whether playing in the slot, at right corner or on the left, Harris is a machine at mirroring his counterpart face-to-face, backpedaling smoothly and driving on throws with ferocity.

In those varied characteristics lies an added versatility against different offenses. Aided by depth with Bradley Roby, Kayvon Webster and Tony Carter, the coaching staff can elect to keep Talib and Harris on their traditional left and right sides respectively, or they can mix and match to adapt to any collection of receivers.

A week ago, that meant Talib taking the 6-foot-5, deep-ball specialist Malcom Floyd, while Harris followed the well-rounded and talented Keenan Allen, leaving Roby on Eddie Royal. The trio caught 6-of-19 targets for just 79 yards.

"Jack [Del Rio] uses it to his ability however he feels, with deep-ball guys or underneath guys or quick guys," Talib says. "He's got a guy who can match up with any receiver who he goes against."

"We can match them how we think, how it should work best for us," Del Rio added. "They have the ability to do a lot. They can each play inside or out, left or right. And so that versatility frees up us defensively to do a lot."

With both Talib and Harris making long-term commitments to Denver – and Roby just getting started – the Broncos' defense should be able to lean on that versatility for years to come. The old Kansas teammates have already played more games together as pros than they did in the Big 12, so perhaps they could even develop more chemistry moving forward.

Those days at KU seem distant today, especially considering the detours each player confronted before their Mile High reunion. But even with seven or so years under their belts since their first meeting in Lawrence, the sibling-like relationship between Talib and Harris remains much like it once was.

"He's a vet in the league now," Talib says, "but I mean it's still the same relationship. He still talks to me like I'm his big bro. I talk to him like he's my little bro. It's still the same old relationship."

Harris agrees, saying he still looks up to Talib. Now with more than a single year to play together, Harris wants to see how high the old Jayhawks can fly.

"Right now, we're the future of the secondary, and it's going to be us for a while here," Harris said. "I mean right now, I think we're top five on defense, so we want to keep that as long as we're here."


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