When he first arrived with the Giants as a much-ballyhooed running back in the spring of 2018, Saquon Barkley was welcomed warmly by the entire organization.
Well, almost the entire organization.
Defensive lineman Damon Harrison greeted the rookie the most typical way he could, saying at a news conference shortly after the draft that he couldn’t wait for the players to get into pads at practice so he could formally introduce himself to Barkley.
“I remember last year he said something like he can’t wait to hit my you-know-what,” Barkley said on Thursday, recalling the playful public jawing. “He’s wanted to get his hands on me since I got here last year, so he’s going to actually get that chance.
“He always used to joke around here and on Twitter and stuff like that,” Barkley added of the back-and-forth he and Harrison enjoyed. “But he’s Snacks, he’s a great dude. When he was here, he was someone that I was able to go to talk to for advice, just how to handle yourself throughout your career. He’s been playing at a high level for a really long time. He’s well respected, so I’m really excited to get to go play against a guy like that.”
The Giants are bracing for their first game against the best run-stopping defensive tackle in the league. And they know he holds that title because he used to be that for them.
Harrison was an All-Pro level player for the Giants for two full seasons before he was traded to the Lions a year ago Thursday. On Sunday, they have to face him.
The Giants are going to get a Snacks attack.
“He’s just naturally big, but he’s smart and he can move,” guard Kevin Zeitler said. “He’s perfectly built for that position and for what he does.”
Harrison left an imprint on many of the players in the current Giants locker room, including one almost literally. While he never really got that lick on Barkley, he did initiate then-rookie guard Will Hernandez in an ugly way during minicamp when, during a post-snap scuffle, he ripped Hernandez’s helmet off by the facemask and swung it at his unprotected head.
Hernandez said he won’t be thinking about that incident when they face off on the field Sunday.
“I don’t hold grudges,” he said. “I don’t get emotional about it. It’s whatever. It doesn’t make a difference whether he had done that or not. I’m still going to come out and play hard.”
Hernandez said the two players cleared the air after the fight.
“It happened, we said what we needed to say to each other, we dealt with it,” he said.
(Generally unnoted in reports of that incident is the fact that after Hernandez nearly had his skull crushed by the very equipment that is supposed to prevent such injury, he charged at Harrison and did not back down.)
Giants defenders have much warmer memories of Harrison.
“Snacks is a great player. I learned so much from him,” second-year defensive lineman B.J. Hill said. “I still watch his film because he makes crazy, crazy plays. I’ll be like, ‘How does this dude make this play?’ I’m shocked sometimes. I tried to get as much from him as I could while he was here.”
Fellow Giants defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson said Harrison is so good technique-wise that he plays as if he has “his own version of martial arts.”
“He just understands the game so well, he can do Snacks-type stuff,” Tomlinson said. “He’s probably one of the smartest defensive linemen I’ve ever played with in my life. He taught me a lot of pointers when he was here.”
Harrison has played well for the Lions, but their overall run defense is a bit suspect. They’ve allowed 139.2 rushing yards per game, which ranks 28th in the NFL.
“Damon has been great,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “He’s been working really hard to try to do everything he can do to get better, just like we all have … We know it’s going to be a big challenge for us this week.”
That’s mostly because of the player Harrison was never allowed to hit when he was with the Giants.
“He’s phenomenal,” Patricia said of Barkley. “His combination of size, explosiveness, strength and speed is very difficult … He’s a big-bodied guy, he is coming at you with low pad level and it’s really hard to deal with guys like that. It’s a very rare talent and ability, he’s pretty phenomenal.”
No doubt Harrison is excited to be able to play against his former team, too.
Tomlinson said he’s kept in touch with Harrison since the trade, but they don’t speak as often now that the season is in full swing. They’ll probably catch up a bit on Sunday, but maybe not.
Tomlinson said he expects Harrison to be surly, fired up and looking for some vengeance. He’ll have something to prove.
And not just because he’s facing the team that traded him away.
“That’s the defensive lineman’s mindset,” Tomlinson said of a lesson he learned from Harrison. “You go into every game [ticked] off.”