Freshman Harris Adds Depth At Receiver

The Fighting Illini football team plays freshmen if they are ready for the rigors of college ball and can help improve the team. Sometimes, it takes them several weeks into the season to demonstrate preparedness. Receiver Spencer Harris is an example. He didn't see his first action until the MSU game, but now he is an integral part of the offense.

Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino had recruited Spencer Harris when he was at Arkansas. The Greenwood, Arkansas, native caught his eye with his receiving ability. He fits Petrino's style.

"I think it's true. At the camp at Arkansas, me and Petrino got along real well. He just liked the way I played, my mentality. I may not be the fastest guy on the field, but I play tough and catch great. He learned how I played, and I guess he liked what he saw."

He makes quick cuts on his routes, a big asset for a receiver. He says it comes naturally to him.

"It does. There's a lot of things I had to work hard for back in summer and at my high school. People would be leaving from practice and I'd still be out catching. It's something you always have to keep tight. The biggest thing in receiving is separation, being quick out of your cuts."

From the beginning of Camp Rantoul, Harris impressed with his ability to make a quick move with the ball to escape tacklers. It is something that Petrino emphasizes, so it is no wonder he was drawn to the youngster.

"I have a quick burst after the catch. That one yard can mean the difference between a first down or not a first down. A touchdown or not a touchdown. I like being a YAC receiver, a yards-after-catch receiver. Especially in high school. I didn't want to get hit and tackled right there. The more yards you get, the better off you are."

When the receivers practice with the Jugs machine, which launches spirals at them at rapid speed, the 6'-3", 180 pounder stands out. All the receivers catch the ball no more than 10 feet from the machine, but there is usually a loud sound when ball meets hands. In contrast, the ball seems to nestle into Harris's hands, as if it was supposed to be there. He caresses it with minimal sound.

"I guess it's a God-given talent. It's something that has come natural to me. Even through high school, my coach said I had the softest hands of anyone playing for him. It's one of my best assets."

Harris played briefly in the Michigan State game. It was a moment he won't soon forget.,/P>

"It was a great experience. It was a lot of fun. Honestly, it really wasn't nerve-wracking at all. We practice so hard with a game atmosphere all the time. To get in there was really great. I had a blast. I just thank God for the opportunity to play."

Was he surprised he was asked to remove a possible redshirt?

"No. He told me at the beginning of the year to be ready to play anytime. I worked real hard in practice and got as many reps as I possibly could so I would be prepared. Now I have an opportunity to go in."

His first catch against Indiana was also special. It is likely the first of many to come.

"It was an awesome feeling to get that first catch for my school. It felt right, it felt natural. I feel comfortable here."

He felt comfortable from the beginning. Speaking at Media Day in early August, he was impressed with everything.

"It's going great. It's been an experience that I'm blessed to have, and blessed to have the God-given talent to even be here. You have to thank God for being at a facility and around people like this. The weight room is just amazing.

"I didn't know many people when I came up here. I knew Chandler (Whitmer), and I knew Coach Petrino. That's about all I knew when I came. So far it's been great. Great people. I love the way the players get along. I couldn't ask to come to any better school."

Harris saw plenty of competition at the receiver spots, but he wasn't frightened by it.

"We have some really talented kids. Not only the older guys but the freshmen too. We've got a lot of speed, and we've got a lot of older guys. We're all pushing each other. There's so much competition at receiver this year. We're so deep, the guys who are the best are gonna be playing. We're gonna have guys just as good backing them up when needed."

Nearly all Illinois players were optimistic in the preseason. But Harris may have spoken earliest and most eloquently regarding potential for the 2010 season and beyond. He knew then the optimism was sincere.

"I think it is. I came from a winning program in high school. If we didn't win a state championship, we went to the semis of the playoffs every year. Just the attitude I remember carrying over from high school to here, I can see players starting to pick it up.

"You can see guys, especially with Coach Petrino in our meetings, just getting excited and saying, 'We can be good.' And you watch other guys too, not just offensive guys. We've seen guys getting better. I've even noticed the receivers since I got here in June, how much better we've gotten on film.

"People are starting to get that sincere feeling that we can be good. We can do it. We have enough talent on this team that I believe we can win a National Championship. I really believe so."

Petrino is excited about all four of his freshmen receivers. Darius Millines and Ryan Lankford were the first to see the field and are best known. But Harris and Anthony Williams are also making a positive impression.

"He (Harris) has real soft hands, he's got a real good get-off. He's smooth in and out of his breaks. You look at him and Anthony Williams. When those two kids get some weight on them and get stronger, they'll be big-time players. They both have big frames, and they have nice hands."

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