The purpose of this feature is to highlight small-school and under-the-radar guys who show glimpses of potential. Players who have been profiled included Emporia State free safety Lyndell Johnson, Avila running back Kelwin Burke Jr and Northwest Missouri cornerback Travis Manning.
As a senior at Arundel High School in Maryland in 2009, R.J. Harris averaged 138 receiving yards a game and scored a state-record 28 touchdowns.
And while the 6-foot, two-sport star says he had about eight football scholarship offers, all were from Division-1AA schools, largely due to one thing he thinks scared off the D-1 schools.
“They weren’t sure of my speed,” Harris said. “That was a knock back in high school, too.”
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In fact, New Hampshire — the school Harris ultimately decided to attend — was one of the last schools to offer, and it took a visit by the head coach, Sean McDonnell, to Harris’ basketball practice to get an offer.
“Me and my boys, we used to do dunk contests in practice, so he got to see my athletic side a little more,” Harris said. “When he saw me dunking and jumping to get rebounds, he was really impressed. That’s when he pulled the trigger with an offer.”
It did not take Harris long to prove he was worth it. After redshirting as a freshman in 2010, he promptly caught 50 passes for 714 yards and seven touchdowns and received all-conference honors 2011.
He remained productive the next two years before exploding as a senior, when he moved from the slot to the outside in New Hampshire’s fast-paced, uptempo offense and caught 100 passes for 1,551 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Still, Harris — who says he ran a 4.76 40-yard dash at New Hampshire’s junior day a year ago — knew a familiar obstacle stood in his way if he wanted to achieve his dream of playing in the NFL.
“Scouts must have been thinking ‘Dude, when a receiver is running a 4.76, they can’t really go to bat for you,’” said Harris, who never lost confidence in his ability.
“At a 4.7, I wasn’t running past everybody. People weren’t giving me a cushion, but I was able to find the holes in defenses and I’m a smart football player — if I see an opening, I’m smart enough to get there and stay open … I’m a savvy route runner who get there without getting jammed up or knocked off my route.”
But his speed remained a question, so once Harris signed with his agent, he moved to Weston, Fla., when he worked with trainer Matt Gates at Fit Speed Athletic Performance. He trained six days a week, and says it was one of the toughest things he’s ever done.
“I was going in there everyday, grinding as hard as I could,” Harris said. “I never put my body through something like that for 2 1/2 months … but it really paid off.”
Indeed. At New Hampshire’s pro day on March 19, Harris broke off 40 times of 4.49 and 4.53, hopefully silencing, once and for all, any concerns that may have existed about his speed.
“I’m really happy about that,” Harris said. “I feel like after my pro day, I was able to prove (my junior day) was just a bad day. I played faster than a 4.7 and I was able to prove it was false, and that I have the necessary speed to play at this level.”
Harris, who also checked in at 200 pounds, features good arm length at 33 inches — which increases his catch radius will help him defeat press coverage — and tested well in the broad jump (127 inches) and vertical (37 1/2 inches).
Several teams were there to see it, too, including the Chiefs.
“I’ve been in contact with a couple of their scouts,” Harris said. “They talked to me, they told me they were interested. I met with them at the Medal of Honor Game (in January). They were giving me good feedback that week of practice.”
Harris worked out for Philadelphia, Miami and visited Green Bay. He will also participate in the Ravens’ local pro day.
Now, Harris — who is projected to be a mid-to-late-round pick or priority free agent — is prepared to play the waiting game once the draft starts on April 30.
“It would really mean the world for me to hear my name called,” Harris said. “I live and breathe football, it’s my life. I’ve brought my family together through football. Every weekend, my parents are coming up (to see me play) and my brother plays football in college … on Sundays we get around the TV and watch football together. I don’t want to say that’s all I am — I got my degree, I graduated from UNH — but football is a big part of that.”
And if he does get drafted, the strong 40-time he posted at his pro day will be a big reason for that.
“I can create separation — I’ve been doing that for four years with a so-called 4.7 40,” Harris said. “But now hat I’ve proved I have the speed to play, I think that can help me create even more separation at the top of my routes.
“If I was able to do it at 4.7, people will be surprised when I go out there and do it with a 4.4, 4.5. So I’m looking forward to that.”