Illini Most Improved? Try Spencer Harris

There is a large number of receivers listed on the Fighting Illini football roster this year, counting a few walkons. Most assume there is an abundance of depth at each of the three primary receiver positions, but that isn't necessarily true. Sophomore Spencer Harris is the starting slot receiver, and right now there is a shortage of depth behind him.

Spencer Harris entered his first Illinois game last year midseason. His statistics showed only four catches for 48 yards and one touchdown, but he demonstrated good hands and football smarts. Among his talents is an ability to block linebackers from the "Y" or slot position. He confirms and explains his role.

"I had to back up (Jarred) Fayson last year. It's a different receiving style. In the slot, you've got to block people. You're not on the corners anymore.

"On a lot of our routes, there's a lot of mental stuff. We have a lot of option routes inside. That was the biggest thing for me to learn from last year to this year, just learning the defenses. I see defenses so much quicker now, especially against the run. That's helped me a lot."

Of course, he must keep improving all aspects of his game.

"The thing I want to work on the most is getting more mentally smart. Playing slot or inside receiver, I've got to know a lot of things. When they're blitzing, what I'm hot off of. What the coverage is. That's why I have to keep on studying film and get my footwork down. You can always get better all-around."

Harris appears to be a natural at the position. Besides quality blocking, he has made plays throughout fall camp and is becoming a go-to receiver. However, he really wishes he had some teammates capable of helping him out at his position.

"Right now, we've got to get another guy to have some reps there so we can have a backup. I'm the only one at "Y." There's definitely times when I tire, but I've gotten used to it. I'm gonna have to take a lot of reps in the game playing "Y," and I'm gonna have to bust my butt to do it."

Despite his youthfulness, he finds himself in teacher mode with those trying his position.

"That's a big thing. Our freshmen are doing real good. Jordan (Frysinger) is doing a great job. I think we're gonna try to get Brandon (Clear) a bunch of reps. He's a bigger body. And maybe Fred (Sykes). We've got to get somebody to help out. If I'm down, we're low there."

The Arkansas product is preparing himself for his important role.

"I've been working hard every day and getting better. There's not much else you can do besides come out and bust your butt every day. Like Coach (Paul Petrino) always says, if you don't go uphill you go downhill."

One reason Harris and fellow freshmen Darius Millines and Ryan Lankford had few receptions last year was the lack of confidence and trust between quarterback and receiver. But that is changing for the better due to hard work in the off season.

"Yeah, we were young last year. We're still young. A lot of us are sophomores. We worked hard over the summer. We came in early in the mornings when we didn't have to.

"We'd start at 5:00 am 2-3 days a week, running routes and getting better. That's what gives us the confidence that leads into this camp. That's why we're doing so well. Do I want to get up at 5:00 am? No. But looking back, I'm glad we did it."

Last year, trust issues went both ways. Starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was playing his first games also, and the receivers didn't always run routes assuming they would have passes thrown their way.

"I think that's right. Honestly, I think we were just hesitant at times. I don't think we had the trust we do this year.

"The chemistry on the team is just unbelievable compared to last year. Things have changed, things are different. People are starting to take Petrino's attitude and his passion for the game. That's probably the biggest thing in our improvement, the attitude. I sometimes dreaded practice last year. I haven't dreaded a single practice this year."

The 6'-3", 195 pounder's confidence in his offense is tremendous this year.

"That's true. The biggest thing is chemistry. Nathan's throwing great; all the quarterbacks are throwing great. Reilly (O'Toole) is doing a good job, Miles (Osei) is doing a good job.

"And our o-line is unbelievable. They're just killing people. Watching our line knock the crap out of people gets me fired up. It makes me want to run my routes hard.

"I feel more relaxed on my routes. I'm not worried about Nathan making the wrong reads; he's not going to do that. I've just got to do my part and run my routes."

Harris comes from a winning high school program. He's beginning to feel like he did prior to his high school seasons.

"I think the chemistry on the team and in the locker room, there's something special going on. Everyone can kind of feel it. I went to a high school that always won championships, and we had that feeling on the team.

"Last year I had the feeling at times, but it wasn't the same as I'm feeling now. I have that feeling that we're gonna be great, and we're getting there."

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