Shhh! Jerome Harrison quietly makes his case

JEROME HARRISON is quietly putting together what is shaping up as the best season ever by a Cougar running back. Quiet, of course, is a relative word. UCLA, Stanford, Oregon State and the rest didn't find him mum. But the national pundits are slow to realize he's shredding the conference at a rate that makes him the No. 2 rusher in the nation.

He eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in only his sixth game. Harrison, though, laughs off the lack of national limelight.

The 5-10, 199-pounder downplays the trappings of personal success, saying the focus belongs on the offensive line that makes his exploits possible. Coach Bill Doba says the senior's reward won't come from awards, but probably with the ever increasing number of NFL scouts coming in to look at Jerome Harrison.

But facts are facts. You just know if "The Ghost" played in Los Angeles, he'd have been on the cover of The Sporting News by now. Twice. His name would also be synonymous with All-American, and worthy of Heisman consideration. Yet Harrison hasn't even been named a Pac-10 player of the week yet this season. Nor did he merit the same status afforded other top conference backs in a Seattle area newspaper on Friday. The article named three running backs as leading the field in the Pac-10 -- Southern Cal's Reggie Bush and LenDale White, and UCLA's Maurice Drew.

Going back to last season, Harrison's rushed for more than 100 yards in nine consecutive contests and turned in back-to-back 200 yard efforts against Pac-10 foes. But those yardage totals of 260 and 215 yards against UCLA and Stanford also came with a WSU loss. At 3-3 and in Pullman, Wash., the spotlight has shifted elsewhere.

DESPITE WASHINGTON STATE rushing the ball more than they've thrown it the past 12 seasons, there hadn't been a Cougar running back to eclipse the 1,000 yard benchmark since Kevin Brown gained 1,046 yards in 1998. Back in August, Harrison cheerfully told a Seattle reporter he'd hit 1,800 and don't be surprised if he cleared 2,000. The reporter laughed, considering Rueben Mayes holds the all-time WSU mark with 1,637 yards.

Harrison looks like a prophet now, on pace to rush for 1,835 yards -- not including any potential bowl game.

"A lot of people didn't believe didn't believe in myself or our offensive line but I spent the whole summer working out with them and training and I just felt we were very capable," said Harrison.

In all of Division-IA football, "The Ghost" is the only player to have rushed for more than 100 yards in every game this season. His 260 yards against UCLA, his third career 200 yard effort in a season and a half, is also the top D-IA mark this season.

VOTED A CAPTAIN after only one year in the program, Harrison doesn't just shine, he sparkles. A fan, coach and player favorite the moment he stepped foot in Pullman, he's been known to sneak up on his offensive linemen, give them a little smack and then race away laughing before they can catch him.

"I mess with all of them," he says. "Great set of guys. They own me, though. I'll get in the huddle and if they think they made a hole and I missed it, they'll tell me. 'Hey, get in the hole and quit dancing.' What can I say, I like stuff like that. But those guys up front make me a lot better than what I really am."

What he is, is a bad man. His mother Debbie Persell, whom he calls every day back home in Kalamazoo, Mich., told him so growing up. He also bears a strong on-field resemblance to father Jerome Persell, the original bad man who carried the ball for Western State. In 1976, the elder Jerome's 1,505 yards were second only to Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett's.

"Ever since I was little, she used to call me her little superstar," laughed Harrison. "And when I was little growing up, she'd be there saying, "You're a baaaad man!", so every morning I'd go look into the mirror and tell myself that, and it came true! My dad, on the other hand, he'll play a little bit. 'Ah, you can get a little better, though.'"

DOBA SAYS IT took a while last year for the coaches to realize what a talent WSU had in Harrison coming out of Pasadena City College. He carried the ball less than six times a game the first four weeks, totaling 73 yards. The last seven games as the featured back, he rushed for 827. Attacking the weight room this offseason, he added 15 pounds of difference-making muscle.

"That's one of the things, that and the coaching," said Harrison. "Coach Kelly Skipper -- he's a great coach. I've just had more time to really sit down and have him explain stuff to me. During the season, you don't have the time to get really into it. He got into more details with me how to read my blocks, how to set up blocks. He's great."

Harrison also worked on blocking itself, turning himself into an exceptional pass protector. Harrison doesn't consider the 200-plus yard efforts at UCLA or Stanford to be his best game this season. Instead, he names a week where he ran for 143 yards, his third lowest rushing game this season.

"Probably Oregon State," he said. "Because I blocked really well that game."

Harrison only half-jokingly says the wide receivers are why he blocks with just as much passion as he does running. Along with his offensive linemen, he spends a lot of time off the field with the receivers.

"I have a great relationship with Michael Bumpus, Jason Hill, Chris Jordan - we spend a lot of time outside of football," said Harrison. "Those are the guys you earn with. On my long runs, they're down the field with me. I know for a fact they're thinking, 'He better make it 'cause I didn't run and block this far for nothing.' So I just try to stay in, block a little bit longer so Brink will have a chance to get the guys the ball."

SOME HAVE HYPOTHESIZED Harrison might be getting tired in the fourth quarter with all the touches. After all, DeMaundray Woolridge had a 100 yard game against Nevada and Kevin McCall has looked great in practice throughout the year. No way is he getting tired, says Harrison.

"No, you better keep feeding it to me because when I don't get it, I get attitude," laughed Harrison. "I'll be the one complaining if I'm not getting it."

Like many of the upperclassmen, Harrison's also taken the younger players under his wing, letting them know it's still fun but it's not the fun and games of high school. It's a business, and they're here to win at Washington State. And he's spent time with McCall and Woolridge, keeping them in the game and imparting knowledge.

"We're very close," said Harrison. "We spend a lot of time together. When I get off the field, I let them know what's going on so when they get in they don't have to try and figure it out themselves. Those two are competing against each other as well so I think those two, they're going to be real great next year. Real great."

Harrison leads the Pac-10 in rushing and is No. 2 in the nation, averaging 166.8 yards a game.

NFL SCOUTS have told Doba they see Harrison as a third down back and punt returner at the next level. As long as he can get his foot in the door, that's fine with Harrison, but he has loftier goals.

Unfinished work remains, though, before conntemplating what he'll be doing next year on Sundays. And he said he'll always have a special place in his heart for Pullman and Washington State.

"I feel no other way," he said. "Ever since the UCLA game, all the fans I've seen on campus have been saying, 'Jerome, you all played a great game. We still support you all. We still believe. You're all still going to take us to a bowl game.' I haven't heard one negative thing...You heard, 'You all should have won' but they were never saying it in a negative way. It was always with a positive vibe."

"You've got to love that."

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