When Lindenwood inside linebacker Connor Harris was a kid, he dreamed of wearing the famed winged helmets of Michigan.
He was maize and blue all the way, despite growing up in Missouri, and he maintained those hopes throughout high school, especially after he led Blue Springs South to a state championship in 2011.
But he would eventually come to realize that for all his high school exploits — he was The Star’s high school player of the year and the state’s Class 6 defensive player of the year as a senior as he excelled as a quarterback, safety, kicker and punter — his dream of running out of the tunnel at “The Big House” would never come to fruition. The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Harris didn’t land a single Division I scholarship offer.
Not one … despite accounting for more than 2,400 total yards, 28 touchdowns and eight interceptions that year, while adding 79 points as a kicker and averaging 38.7 yards on 44 attempts as a punter.
“I was a little underrecruited in high school,” Harris said. “Everything happens for a reason.”
Still, it was a tough pill to swallow at the time. Harris said some of the local schools, like Missouri, offered him an opportunity to be a preferred walk-on, but he felt that if a school really wanted him, they’d pay for his education.
Lindenwood, a Division II school, stepped to the plate, and liked him so much he became a starter as a true freshman on a team that went 8-4.
“I knew that if I was good enough, they’d find me,” Harris said of NFL teams. “Flash forward a few years, and I’ve got the chance of a lifetime.”
Indeed. On Tuesday, Harris, who now weighs in at 241 pounds, found himself at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., competing among 100 of the nation’s top NFL Draft prospects.
A middle linebacker now, Harris started all 48 games he appeared in at Lindenwood and set the NCAA all-division record for career tackles with 633.
“It was a great decision to go there,” said Harris, who credits his teammates and coaches for helping him reach his potential during his college career.
What’s more, Harris — who is coming off a senior campaign in which he racked up 138 tackles and was chosen the national Division II defensive player of the year — never had to completely give up his throwback, do-it-all-style of play in college.
This past year, in addition to being a dominant defensive player, he punted 19 times and averaged 38.8 yards per attempt, all while going a perfect 12-for-12 on extra points. He also served as a Wildcat quarterback at times in his career, and rushed for a career-high 188 yards in one game in 2014.
So yes, Harris — who missed most of the 2013 season because of an injury — has managed to catch the eye of NFL scouts, including many of the same ones who had once descended upon Lindenwood to look at cornerback Pierre Desir – a fourth-round pick of the Browns in 2014 – and eventually took notice of Harris.
“He was someone I looked up to in a lot of different ways, and because of him, I got some looks,” Harris said. “I was able to show some stuff as a freshman and sophomore when they were coming to look at him … (teams) have told me that when they came there for them, they saw me a little bit, and that’s why they came back.”
Draft analyst Eric Galko of OptimumScouting.com says Harris has a good chance of being drafted — two of the last three Cliff Harris award winners have been — but his arm length of 28 3/4 inches is a concern, because it can be difficult for short-armed inside linebackers to keep linemen off their bodies.
“On film he’s hyperactive, hyperexplosive in a good way,” Galko said. “He’s balanced and finishes in the backfield. His biggest question mark is if can he handle these bigger O-linemen in drills … because you’ve got to show you can thump with guards and centers. If you can’t get off blocks and linemen, you can’t find a home.”
Harris shrugged that concern off after Tuesday’s practice — which he had an impressive interception in, by the way — much in the same way he did after he received little D-I love five years ago. He counts former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland among his idols, and while Borland (5-11, 248) has drawn attention for the way he quit the game two years ago, when he did play, he was outstanding, despite possessing arms only slightly longer than Harris’.
Suffice it to say, that’s a comforting notion for Harris, who counts Borland and Carolina’s stud inside linebacker Luke Kuechly as his on-field football idols and is used to being doubted.
“If I could help it I would, but that’s how God made me,” Harris said of his arm length. “I’m going to come out here and try to show ways I can get around that. Use my speed and my strength and try to get a good strike … there’s some great guys in this league that also have short arms.”
Any additional motivation Harris needed to show his ability came when he stepped on that field Tuesday and spotted several teammates on the North squad from Michigan wearing the same winged helmets he’d once dreamed of donning.
“Coming out here, I was kind of in (awe), kind of in shock that I was here getting this opportunity,” Harris said. “But once that whistle blew, once the horn went off and we started to do walkthroughs, I get zoned in and focus. Just another day of football.”
“It doesn’t matter what school you went to — it’s where you’re going.”
Harris will continue his quest the rest of the week in Mobile, and, after that, at the NFL Combine in late February, where he’s already received an invite, a source told The Star.
There, teams will have a chance to interview him and test his football character, much like they will this week. For a hint, they only needed to look at his jersey after practice Tuesday, where there were a few smatterings of blood.
When told about this, Harris down at it and grinned.
“Little bit (of blood),” Harris said. “Someone’s blood.”