While the Miami offense has sputtered and its defense has been inconsistent, special teams play has generally been a bright spot for the 2008 RedHawks. Among those providing a special teams spark is Eugene Harris.
Eugene Harris' 44-yard punt return TD vs Charleston / Photo: Mike Smith
The sophomore from Atlanta, Georgia earned a letter while averaging 9.3 yards per punt return in 2008. That is close to the 10-yard average Miami special teams co-coordinator Jimmy Lindsey would like to see.
We would like to give our offense (the equivalent of) an extra first down or two each game, Lindsey said.
Through six games, Harris has pushed this years average up to 15.1 yards per return.
Even better, he has taken two of his returns back for scores.
His first TD scamper came against Charleston Southern and covered 44 yards. His latest was last week when he sailed 66 yards to paydirt. In both instances, the timing of the scores was outstanding.
Both times I ran it back, we were down at the moment, Harris said, noting that punt returns have the potential to swing momentum particularly in tight games.
Harris TD return against Charleston Southern helped pave the way for the RedHawks' only victory so far this season. His return for a score against Northern Illinois put his team on the scoreboard, and within a few minutes, the RedHawks tied the hosts at 10-10.
Although the RedHawks eventually lost 17-13, Harris hopes he can return to the end zone a few more times especially if it helps produce some wins.
Every time I get my hands on the ball, I feel like I want to score. I just want to do something positive for the team, said Harris, who also sees action as a wide receiver. I try to make plays every time I get a chance.
Harris estimated his 40-yard sprint time at about 4.35. Speed, however, is but one part of his return game. Other attributes include decision-making, strength. vision and good hands.
He did recall one fumble last year in a game against Buffalo. I was trying to be too fancy, and it came out on me, Harris said, adding with a grin, I learned a lot from that.
Its really hard to go in and handle punts for a whole year as a freshman, Lindsey said. You just worry about that guy being able to field it with a defender in his face, but for the most part, we try to put the best guys we can out there (on special teams). If hes a freshman and he can help us, hes going in.
|Every time I get my hands on the ball, I feel like I want to score."
Photo: Mike Smith
Harris began learning his role as a returner back in high school, where he scored 23 TDs as a receiver and returner. There is definitely a lot of stuff to learn. Youve got to be able to judge the ball. Youve got to know when to get out of the way and when to flag off the players who are blocking for you, he said. Youve got to work on it every day and we take special teams seriously (at Miami).
One of the particularly important qualities of a good punt returner is vision. Not only is it critical in judging punts especially in windy conditions vision is also important in evaluating the situation under pressure. Youre got to be able to judge the ball and watch out for the (defensive) players who are coming to hit you, Harris said. Youve got to have confidence and use your hands. Dont try to run before you have the ball. That can mess you up a lot.
Controlled confidence in the face of defenders who are running full speed and anxious to get a highlight hit is part of what makes a successful punt returner.
Youve got to have a little swagger to you, Lindsey said. Youve got to be a little fearless and a little daring. That is one of the key assets that Eugene brings to the table.
Harris actually was a standout in more than one sport as a prep player. In addition to football, he lettered in baseball and was an all-state performer in basketball. It was the prospect of playing both basketball and football that helped bring him to Miami.
I wanted to come somewhere I could play basketball and football, he said. Coach Shane (Mongtomery) gave me his word (that I could), Harris said.
The 5-10, 180-pounder did get to play some basketball while he redshirted in football during his freshman year. The basketball was an experience he remembers well, especially the night when his RedHawks basketball team won the MAC tournament on a last second shot by Doug Penno.
We got a ring that year. It was good. It was fun.
Harris confines himself to football these days, but as long as he is fielding punts, he knows he is just a few steps away from again hearing the cheers of teammates and Miami fans.
That is why they (brought) me here to make plays and that is what I am going to try to do, Harris said.