Before totaling two touchdown receptions in a 47-34 Cotton Bowl win over Texas Tech, senior TE Gerald Harris wasn't the greatest of threats in the Ole Miss offense last season.
Harris became the first Rebel to collect two TDs in a bowl game with his breakout January performance, but most of his junior season was spent as a sixth blocker along the offensive line.
"Gerald is important to our offense," said Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt. "He's our best blocker, by far, and he gained a lot of confidence in the Cotton Bowl catching the ball."
For the year, Harris finished with 84 yards receiving and four touchdowns. He saw action in all 13 games last season, drawing six starts, including the final five contests.
But after proving his worth in the passing game, Harris will be given a larger role in 2009.
"He had a tremendous summer," Nutt said. "We have gained a lot of confidence in him in the passing game too. When I recruited him, I wasn't sure how he'd be in the passing game, but when he got here I saw he catches the ball naturally and has good hands. He got better and better, so much so that we have installed a few more plays where he is one of the primary receivers."
However, having pulled a hamstring in a scrimmage 11 days ago, Harris' contributions in the team's season opener against Memphis appear minimal.
Despite being fully dressed in shorts and shells Wednesday, Harris was still feeling some tightness and soreness. Enough so, in fact, that his practice reps have been limited with only three days until kickoff.
"He's still sore. I think he can play Sunday," Nutt said. "It's at a point where he's got to say 'it's time to play' and get on with it," Houston said. "He didn't re-injure it, but he's sore. Gerald has never been injured before - ever - in his football career and he's trying to deal with it mentally, but I think he'll be fine. He just doesn't know how to handle the setback right now, but I think he will be OK."
Harris said the injury has been tough on him because he has never missed any time in his football career.
"It's a little tight right now. This is the first time I have ever missed a practice in my entire career, so it's tough on me right now," Harris said. "I'm just trying to come back and do everything the trainers and strength staff tells me to do. I'm running in the pool to take some weight off it and get that full range of motion back.
"The good thing is that I have a lot of faith in the other tight ends. They have been working hard and if I can't go I do not think we will miss a beat on offense."
Regardless of Harris' availability, Ole Miss does hold options in case of his absence.
Redshirt freshmen Ferbia Allen and E.J. Epperson have been given extra attention with Harris sidelined, with Allen manning first team duties.
"Working behind Gerald Harris, he's helped me out a lot," said Allen. "He's like a big brother to me. It's a good way to help me get ready for the season. When he hurt himself, I felt kind of bad, but Coach Nutt has me here for a reason. I need to step up and help out as much as I can for the team."
"I think I'm coming along pretty well. Coach Decker and Coach Shibest have worked me pretty hard. I feel a lot better than I did when I first came. I feel pretty good right now."
Offensive Coordinator Kent Austin is optimistic about Harris' condition.
"We've still got a couple of days to go and he's improving, which is good, but we have talked about it as a staff and have a plan in the event he cannot go," said Austin. "If he's limited or out, we feel we will be OK. The other guys are getting a lot of reps right now and are ready to play. Ferbia Allen, E.J. (Epperson) and Reggie (Hicks) are doing a nice job in his absence.
"We certainly want and need Gerald in the opener, but as I said, we have options and they have worked hard to get ready."
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