Saints breakout rookie Deonte Harris has always been a TD waiting to happen

(Editor's note: This story originally published on Sept. 28, 2019. Harris was selected to the 2020 Pro Bowl.)

METAIRIE, La. -- Deonte Harris had already scored on a 99-yard kickoff return, a 76-yard pass and a 39-yard pass during the second round of the NCAA Division II playoffs in 2017.

So with 5:57 remaining and Harris’ Assumption College leading by five points, the University of Findlay did what most teams tried to do that season – kick the ball away from him.

Unfortunately, Findlay’s squib kick squirted past two other Assumption players and wound up rolling right into Harris’ hands.

And he promptly returned it 80 yards for another score.

“That was probably the craziest one,” said Harris, now an undrafted rookie with the New Orleans Saints.

But he does have plenty of candidates to choose from.

Before the dynamic 5-foot-6, 170-pounder scored his first NFL touchdown on a 53-yard punt return at Seattle last week, and before he took a punt 78 yards to the house against the Jets in the preseason to help secure his roster spot, Harris set the NCAA all-division record with 14 career punt and kickoff returns for TDs in college.

“We wanted him to touch the ball every time,” said former Assumption and current Holy Cross special-teams coordinator Drew Canan. But that was easier said than done.

Canan and head coach Bob Chesney had to get more creative than they ever imagined with Assumption’s kick-return game to devise ways for Harris to get the ball.

Teammates were instructed to lateral the ball back to Harris whenever they got their hands on it, because opponents tried to squib-kick so often. And other times, the coaches would try to hide Harris in the formation.

“Left tight end, for example,” Canan said. “We’d move him all over, assuming they wouldn’t see him back there and they’d kick it deep. And then we’d have him come around and get it.”

One time, Harris said he was practically hiding near the sideline when he wound up scoring. Another time, a teammate faked a pitch to him – and that player wound up scoring instead because the whole defense swarmed toward Harris.

“I just took it as an honor,” Harris said of the way coaches for both sides were scheming so much around him.

But Harris didn’t gravitate toward being a return specialist right away.

He was also a star running back in high school, gaining more than 2,000 yards of total offense while leading Baltimore’s Archbishop Curley to its first-ever undefeated season in 2014.

“I didn’t really buy into it until my junior year of college. I hated the thought of playing kick returner/punt returner,” Harris said. “But the end of junior year, I realized I could do something with this.

“The only thing you can do is take pride in it and try to get better each and every day.”

Harris’ mom, Ellisa Harty, joked that he “got his speed from me” because she used to run track. But she said neither she nor her husband, Marlon, really takes any credit - nor do any of his coaches, for that matter. Harris was tearing up football fields starting around the age of 5.

“All his coaches have always said he just had a natural-born ability and a gift that he could see things on the field,” said Ellisa, who will be one of many members of the traveling “Tay Nation” fan base at Sunday night’s game against the Dallas Cowboys in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“He definitely deserves it. He’s just a great kid,” Ellisa said.

Of course, that begs the question: How did Harris wind up at Assumption College in Massachusetts, and how did he wind up going undrafted?

Unfortunately, the answer is the obvious one. Because he’s 5-foot-6 and 170 pounds.

Harris said he even had one college coach specifically tell him he was “too small to play Division I” and “smaller than I thought” when he came to his school on a recruiting visit. FCS program Towson did offer a partial scholarship at the last minute. But Harris stuck with Assumption because it had been after him longer and because he wanted to leave Baltimore.

“I just took it as motivation. I knew somebody was gonna give me an opportunity. And once I got that opportunity, I just ran with it,” Harris said. “Ever since I was little, I’ve always been small. So guys have always counted me out because of that. I got used to it as I grew up.

“But I always kept that chip on my shoulder, and every time I go out to practice or go to play, I always feel like I’ve got something to prove.”

Assumption’s coaches thought everyone else was nuts. They celebrated when they landed him -- with Canan crediting strength and conditioning coordinator Chris Grautski for his recruiting efforts.

“People underestimate his size, and they underestimate him. But you look at the film and it’s as good of a high school film as you’re gonna see. And you look at the college film -- I know I’m biased -- but it’s as good of a college film as you’re gonna see when it comes to returning,” said Canan, who said “I’m not the least bit surprised” Harris has continued to thrive in the NFL.

The Saints didn’t draft Harris, but they certainly didn’t overlook him.

Harris said they were one of only about four or five teams to hold a private workout with him at Assumption before they later brought him to New Orleans as one of their 30 predraft visits.

Saints special-teams coordinator Darren Rizzi said he “probably came away from that workout even more impressed” after getting a chance to see Harris field some pro-style punts and getting to know him as a person.

Rizzi, who used to coach at the Division II level early in his career, said he wound up being a “gnat” in the draft room from about the fifth round on, trying to get the Saints to draft Harris.

“The [college] film was extremely impressive,” Payton said. “I can recall watching it, and it was almost humorous the success he was having.

“So what was difficult was the level of competition. But nonetheless, you asked yourself, ‘Well, does he dominate?’ And he did.”

The Saints made it a priority this offseason to add some juice to their return game. They also signed veteran punt returner Marcus Sherels in free agency. But Sherels battled injury throughout training camp, and the Saints couldn’t ignore the way Harris looked ready to break a big return almost every time he got his hands on the ball in the preseason games.

The next two steps for Harris are to work his way into some offensive touches on both receptions and end-around runs -- as Payton suggested he might earlier this week -- and to get his fumbling under control.

Harris recovered his own fumble in the preseason, but then he lost one Sunday at Seattle. When Payton was asked after the game if he thought he found another “diamond in the rough,” he said, “On the return, I did. On the fumble, I didn’t. It was a diamond and a piece of coal. But he’s done well. He’s confident.”

Harris said his advice from coaches was to just stay calm and have that “next-play mentality.”

And as he has shown repeatedly, there’s a good chance that next one will be special.