The Longhorns are always very selective with who they let represent their program, aiming to go with the most respected of their players, which made it all the more telling as to Harris’ placement on Texas’ totem pole.
Prior to this season you could have argued he wasn’t even on it, but not anymore.
Not after Wednesday when he spoke to the media during mid-week of a game week for the first time in his career, and certainly not after Texas’ season-opening victory over North Texas in which Harris overcame two early drops to lead the team in catches (7) and yards (110).
"I started off a little shaky, but I finished off the right way."
“Just that I know that I can play here,” Harris said when asked what statement he felt he made on Saturday. “My coaches tell me that all of the time. All through camp they said, 'You can play here, all you guys in this room can play here.' And that's the statement I wanted to come out here and make. I started off a little shaky, but I finished off the right way.”
Included in Harris’ seven catches was an 8-yard touchdown reception – the only one David Ash threw all game.
He’s already surpassed his total catches for 2013 when he had five for 141 yards and two scores as a little-used tight end. Those numbers were actually team-highs for TE’s but Texas rarely used them in the passing game.
But 2013 is neither here nor there for Harris, who has found a renewed sense of purpose since Charlie Strong took over. Frustration doesn’t begin to describe his feelings for how he was being used prior to Strong’s arrival.
He played in only three games as a redshirt freshman before missing the rest of the season with a foot injury and rarely saw the field as a sophomore when he only caught two passes for 36 yards.
“Breaking my foot was a negative,” he said. “Coming out the next year and not playing, sitting out has been really hard for me. Playing on special teams and not getting playing time in games I’ve always wanted to play in since I was a kid. Getting hurt and being around my teammates and watching guys play in front of me was the hardest thing for me to get over.”
It was hard for Harris to find his place during those times. The thought of giving up the game crossed his mind more than once.
“There has been times when I wanted to just give up,” he said.
But his brother, Alex, who ran track at Stephen F. Austin (2005-06), wouldn’t let him do that.
“He told me, ‘Don’t ever let anybody take anything from you whether it be the coaches or anything,’” Harris said. “’Don’t quit on something or you’ll just quit for the rest of your life. It’s easy to quit but it’s harder to stay.’ A lot of people around here helped me stay. I ended up graduating. It was hard for me to stay around and stick around, but sometimes you have to be patient.”
One of Harris’ first orders of business was to get into better shape. Texas wide receivers coach Les Koenning said when he first took the job that Harris had trouble staying in plays because he got winded so easily.
That’s no longer the case.
“I’m in a lot better shape,” Harris said. “Dealing with the heat a lot better. I am a lot better mentally and physically. I guess you can say I am a changed person.”
One probably thought he looked like the same John Harris early on with those two drops, which he said were caused by early-game jitters.
But Ash continued to go toward the 6-foot-2, 218-pound receiver, who caught everything thrown his way after that. He ended up with one more catch than Jaxon Shipley.
“He's a young man that I had a meeting with when I came in and I told him, I said you're going to have to improve and you're going to have to get better if you want to be a part of this team,” Strong said. “And I just felt bad because I told him, what, two or three days ago, I said, you remember the conversation we had? He said, "Kind of gave me a wake-up call." And I said, "Yeah, and you needed that because you're very talented.”
Strong said that Harris would likely get put in plenty of one-on-one situations out of the “X” receiver position and that he should have success if he uses his big frame properly.
The challenge now for Harris, which he’s never experienced at this level, is having to account for being a go-to target. Defenses will adjust. He’ll need to as well.
To that, Harris would likely say ‘bring it on.’ He’s been given a second chance and plans on making the most of it.
“I do feel like I got a second chance,” Harris said. “I was told by multiple people that this is another opportunity, that this is my last chance and to take it whenever I got the opportunity. I feel like this was a second chance for me and with anybody when you get a new coaching staff. It wasn’t just me it was everybody that got a second chance.”