AUSTIN, Texas -- John Harris was ready to quit. Made too much sense, really.
He hasn’t forgotten the line Les Koenning, Texas’ first-year receivers coach, snapped at him in the spring: “You’re a senior and you ran a route like that?”
Harris didn’t need any reminders of how little he’d achieved as a Longhorn. The fifth-year receiver was running out of time and patience. Texas was set to have a dozen other scholarship wideouts competing for his playing time.
“I’d probably say I was about dead last in the pecking order,” Harris said.
Good thing he didn’t leave. These days, Harris is the third-leading receiver in the Big 12, as unlikely a success story as it gets for new coach Charlie Strong. The oft-unused asset has become irreplaceable. He’s young quarterback Tyrone Swoopes’ most trusted target, the Longhorns’ best (and at times only) big-play threat.
“When he plays well, when he gets going, the whole offense gets going,” Strong said. “They kind of feed off of him.”
Harris is talking about 1,000 receiving yards these days, a bar no Texas receiver has met since Jordan Shipley in 2009. When Harris' father, Peter, predicted in the spring he’d surpass 1,100 this year, Harris laughed. Pretty funny, Dad.
“I don’t know where it came from,” Strong said. “I didn’t see it in the spring.”
That’s because Harris had one eye on the door. He was fed up with Texas football. He wasn’t playing with purpose. His five years in Austin weren’t going to end happily.
Had Harris followed through and bolted, he says he might have ended up at Texas Tech as a graduate transfer. Former Tech linebacker Terrance Bullitt, a high school teammate, encouraged him to make the move. Harris saw how the Red Raiders used Jace Amaro last season. Joining an offense that actually threw it around was intriguing.
Koenning could tell Harris wanted to exit. He asked for one thing: Give us a chance. If he were still fed up by the end of spring practice, Koenning would help him find his next school.
Strong was a bit more blunt when he first sat down with the frustrated receiver.
“I told him it’s all about his attitude,” Strong said. “If he decided he really wants to be here, he needed to make his mind up.”
The difference between Harris and those feel-good stories of newly discovered starters such as Dylan Haines and Taylor Doyle, whom the previous Texas staff supposedly ignored? Harris knows he had a few chances.
“I wouldn’t say they didn’t believe in me. I think maybe they were more frustrated with me,” Harris said. “I can understand why I didn’t play.”
The way he sums up his career is the typical tale of a player getting lost. He redshirted, broke his foot, missed time, fell behind, didn’t perform and then fell further behind younger players. He wasn’t competing. He wasn’t confident.
Harris scored two important touchdowns in 2013 – the first score of the season plus a Hail Mary before halftime at Iowa State – but caught three passes the rest of the year.
“I never understood why he didn’t play,” cornerback Quandre Diggs said.
But the catches that didn’t count did matter. Harris spent most of his junior season on scout team, working week after week in practice to develop a rapport with Swoopes. They have a chemistry now, a level of trust forged during those thankless days, that makes this year’s Texas offense move.
Swoopes doesn’t have to be on the money. He can put the ball high. He can get away with an underthrow. Doesn’t make much of a difference. He knows his 6-foot-2, 218-pound buddy will compete with a defender and go get it.
“Of course I’m glad he stayed,” Swoopes said.
Like Swoopes, Harris wasn’t supposed to be a starter this year. Maybe the door never opens if not for the dismissal of two receivers and the suspension of Daje Johnson. The presumed top wideouts, Jaxon Shipley and Marcus Johnson, both missed time with injuries during fall camp.
Texas really had no choice but to start throwing to Harris. He had no choice but to capitalize: 72 targets, 48 receptions, 814 receiving yards, six touchdowns, a trio of 100-yard games, a career-high 165 yards at Texas Tech last Saturday. A season so good, only his dad could have predicted it.
“He’s become the poster child for what we want in our program,” Texas co-offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said.
Strong and Koenning are still in his ear constantly, offering a steady stream of screaming. You'd better believe they busted on him for two drops at Texas Tech. Harris says he needs it. Otherwise he relaxes. He's spent more than enough time relaxing on the sidelines these past few years.
Confidence is no longer an issue. It's not just about 1,000 yards. This week, West Virginia's potential All-America receiver, Kevin White, comes to town. Harris wants to beat him, too.
"I think I’m the best receiver in the conference," Harris said. "But hey, I guess we’ll find out Saturday."