Earlier in the week when head coach Chris Ash announced that last season’s leading receiver, Jawuan Harris, was moving to the secondary, it was a surprise. Although Harris has struggled in his sophomore campaign, the sudden move to defense was more about the lack of depth with the defensive backs more than anything else. With starting safeties Kiy Hester and Saquan Hampton unable to play against Illinois, Harris was needed and he answered the call in a major way.
Coming into the game, it was fair to question what has been going on with Harris this season? After leading the team in both receptions (39) and yards (481) last season on a receiving core that has two players from that group now in the NFL, he had just one catch for 4 yards so far this season. Harris got off to a rocky start, as he was suspended for the season opener against Washington. Hardball is considered his strong suit and the former Big Ten stolen bases champ hit three homers in a game last spring. He is likely to be selected in the Major League Baseball draft next year, which makes his future with football seem destined to become fleeting.
With that being said, Harris flourished in his new role in yesterday’s game and was a key factor in Rutgers winning their first Big Ten game in almost two years. Harris led the team with 11 tackles and had one interception, as well as a forced fumble. Here is what Ash had to say about his performance.
"It was outstanding, to be honest with you. I'm not going to lie, I was a little bit nervous about it going into the game and how he would handle it. It wasn't until Thursday practice that we started to feel good about him going out there and being able to perform. Trying to throw a lot at him in a short amount of time, but he is an intelligent man and he learned what he needed to learn. We didn't run a lot of calls today because of him being in there but he executed every call we made and made some outstanding plays today that helped us win this football game. I'm really proud of him, very selfless of him to make that move to the defense from the offensive side."
Harris proved once again that he is a special athlete and that both the football and baseball programs at Rutgers are fortunate to have him.
Another player who stepped up in the absence of Hester and Hampton was K.J. Gray, who had 8 tackles and an interception of his own against Illinois. The pick came off a deflection of Illini receiver Mikey Dudek in the red zone on the first possession of the second half. It was a big momentum stopper in the game for the Rutgers defense. Gray talked after the game about the approach he and Harris took throughout the week:
"It was just a mental approach. Once we have it mentally, then we can do it. It wasn't a physical outmatch. Jawuan (Harris) came over. He had a week of preparation but he performed really well. It's all about preparation."
Of course, the attitude of Harris was vital to his success on the field against Illinois. His willingness to help the team should not be forgotten. Harris talked about the move after the game:
"I was all for it. I figured I can do it. So when they asked me and I was like 'cool I'll go over there and learn and do it.’ I was fine as far as the pass game. I just had to get that first hit out of the way and once I did. just try to keep making tackles."
From a tackling perspective, Harris was excellent. He made several open field stops and looked fundamentally sound. He deserves a ton of credit for his performance on Saturday and should serve as a great example to other players on the roster that this team needs more players to step up. Harris personified the term “football player” with how he performed against Illinois.
With Hampton likely out for a significant amount of time, possibly the season, Harris is likely to stay on the defensive side of the ball. While Hester will hopefully be back next week, Rutgers will likely use both Gray and Harris as well in the back of the secondary. Purdue comes to Piscataway next and they’ll feature a solid passing attack, so Rutgers will need all the help they can get. Harris proved in his debut that he can be a factor for a defense in major need of playmakers. Hats off to the two-sport athlete and now two-way football player.