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STAR: After Slow Start, Harris Now Showing Off Versatility
Dwayne Harris paused momentarily when posed the question.
“Is there a player in the league right now who can do as much as you and perform at a similar level?”
A player fitting that description is becoming increasingly difficult to find, so the “right now” portion of that question was removed. Another brief pause, and Josh Cribbs’ name came to mind for Harris, whose special teams coach answered with Micheal Spurlock and former Pro Bowler Clifton Smith.
The latter two returners both played for Cowboys special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia as well, but it goes to show just how versatile Harris became in 2013, ranking among league leaders in punt return and kick return average while tying for first on the Cowboys in special teams tackles as well.
Harris also caught the game-winning touchdown pass for the Cowboys against the Vikings, three weeks after winning his second NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honor of the season.
“He’s a good football player, it’s as simple as that,” says head coach Jason Garrett.
This is the same player who was cut five games into his professional career three years ago and signed to the practice squad.
Harris didn’t have the benefit of Organized Team Activities or a minicamp during his first year in the league, making it difficult for the rookie to acclimate. He remembers the rollercoaster ride, trying to find a fit.
“I was like, ‘Why don’t they use me like I was being used in college?’” Harris recalls. “Because that’s what I did. I was a returner, a punt returner, the guy who made plays for my team in college.”
He was used sporadically as a returner when he was brought back to the active roster for the final two games of his rookie season in 2011. After flashing his capabilities offensively and in special teams in camp and early on in the year, it took the Cowboys seven games to hand Harris the primary returning role in 2012.
In his first game, he responded by taking back a punt 37 yards against the Falcons to grab hold of the spot, and he then followed that by scoring on a punt return a week later at the Eagles.
“I just felt like whenever they gave me a chance to go out and show them what I can do, I did that,” Harris says. “What I do is never enough, but I just continue to work hard. Preseason I always go out and do good, then the season I always go out and do good. Now, I just continue to do that.”
He doesn’t lack in confidence, the way some late-round draft picks might, but it’s hard to argue against the Renaissance Man’s reasoning. In the last two years, he’s already picked up three NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors.
This year, Harris earned it once for his coverage skills and once for his return abilities.
“He can make people miss, he’s strong and he’s hard to bring down at times,” Bisaccia says. “He’s really a good football player. I’m sure he could play multiple positions at a lot of places.”
Harris earned his first Player of the Week honor in the opener against the Giants for three special teams tackles. He picked up the award again in another division battle, returning a kickoff 90 yards and scoring on an 86-yard punt return touchdown to spark a win over the Redskins.
“I’ve embraced the role of, ‘Wherever they need me to be, that’s where I’m going to be,’” Harris says.
That’s a role he’s accepted since his college days.
Athlete To All-Star
It didn’t take long for former East Carolina head coach Skip Holtz to visualize all the ways he could utilize the three-star “athlete” recruit from Tucker, Ga., who’d played quarterback throughout high school.
He noticed how sparingly Harris would get tackled by the first defender in high school, and he knew how versatile he could be. Returner. Receiver. Running back. Nothing was out of the question for the youngster.
“I think the thing that impressed me the most about him was just his strength, his power, his quickness, his elusiveness,” says Holtz, who coached at ECU from 2005-09. “When he came in, he was one of those rare guys that was better than we thought he was.”
Holtz knew if nothing else, he could use Harris in the return game and at times in the backfield. Holtz had some experience with players of Harris’ caliber, using former Dallas Cowboys receiver Raghib “Rocket” Ismail at Notre Dame as an example. He saw a similar explosiveness with Harris.
“With Dwayne, I knew I could throw him the bubble screen, run him on a reverse, give him the jet sweep,” Holtz says. “I knew I was really impressed with his athleticism. The thing that happened along the way, he continued to really mature as a receiver.”
At the time, Holtz didn’t know that the former quarterback would finish his career at East Carolina as the team’s all-time leader in receptions (268) and receiving yards (3,001), wrapping up his senior year as the Conference-USA MVP after ending his junior campaign as the C-USA Special Teams Player of the Year.
Just how valuable was that kind of a “do-everything” guy?
“Invaluable,” Holtz says.
Harris would spend five minutes in the backfield, another 10 at quarterback and then switch for 10 minutes to play slot receiver in practice.
“For us, I knew he could play about three or four positions on the offensive side of the ball,” Holtz says. “I knew he could be a punt returner/kick returner, and when we had a couple of injuries at quarterback, he became our backup quarterback. We just kind of ran the Wildcat with him. He was invaluable to us.”
Holtz credits Harris’ work ethic, which consistently gets brought up by Harris’ current coaches as well. Holtz says he saw Harris’ talent and versatility, but Harris is the one who took those traits and molded himself into the receiver he is now. As Holtz says, Harris “polished” himself, and the receiver’s lower body strength continued to develop.
With that strength and determination to get on the field, few injuries would keep him out.
No Pain, No Gain
Harris showed up on the Cowboys’ injury report after a Week 3 win against the Rams this past season, which coincidentally was one of just two games during the year that he didn’t record a kick return.
“Hip,” it read next to his name.
That “hip” injury wasn’t as trivial as it seemed.
“It all happened the same time, two different injuries,” Harris remembers. “When I got kneed in the side, it kind of tore some muscles in my lower ab. It’s definitely an injury I would never wish on anybody because it hurts so bad. Then I had a contusion in the hip and it was just bad.”
He describes a “torn ab” in the most casual manner possible. Maybe it’s because he knew it wouldn’t prohibit him from getting on the field. Harris hasn’t missed a game this season and only missed practice immediately after the injury. That doesn’t mean the pain is gone.
“After the St. Louis game and the one in San Diego, it probably got worse because I was taking hits to it and not really resting it and not standing off of it and letting it heal,” he says. “I was out practicing and playing in the game, taking hits to it, running, cutting, all the stuff I shouldn’t be doing to let it heal. But I just love this game. I just love being out on the field, so I don’t want to miss opportunities to be out there with my teammates.”
The hip and abdominal issues were just the latest in a string of injuries that have prevented him in the past from progressing. A hamstring issue held Harris back early in his rookie year, and he also had an ankle problem in 2012.
“In college, I was always injured,” he says. “I’ve just learned to play through injuries now and play through the pain and continue to go out and play like nothing’s wrong with me.”
Harris fought through the second-most difficult injury of his playing career with the lower ab issue, missing nine games during the 2013 campaign.
The most painful was a broken foot. He had a season-ending foot injury his sophomore year in college, but it didn’t end there, as the Pirates carried a four-game winning streak into a bowl game the next season.
“My junior year, I played through the whole second half with a broken foot and didn’t even know it,” Harris says. “It was cold; it was like maybe 10 degrees out. We were playing Arkansas in the Liberty Bowl and it was frozen. My feet were frozen solid so I couldn’t even feel it.”
That didn’t surprise Holtz, who recalls Harris battling through that injury and says bumps and bruises never halted his star. Breaks and tears apparently could fall into that category as well.
“He’s a tough, competitive young man,” Holtz says. “I just couldn’t be more pleased to see the success that he’s had, and I continue to wish him well.”
Finding A Niche
The Cowboys understand now just how much of a difference maker Harris can be.
It may have taken a while, but he’s been hard to ignore since assuming punt return duties in the middle of the 2012 season from Dez Bryant, who continues to be impressed by the player whose locker is right next to his.
“It starts with confidence,” Bryant says. “You have to believe you can do it. You can’t be afraid. This is a tough game. A lot of guys can’t do it, and just to see him do it is outstanding.”
It wasn’t always that way.
In fact, Harris says he first started turning heads more as a receiver in the NFL than a returner. He recorded five catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns in a preseason game against the Broncos during his rookie year of 2011, and followed that in the 2012 exhibition slate with another stellar performance, recording three catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns in a win over the Rams.
Many of his teammates didn’t even know what he had accomplished in college when it came to the return game – they thought he was just a receiver.
“I came along, started doing a little kickoff returns later in the season,” Harris remembers from his rookie year. “I was averaging like 27 yards and only had played six, seven, eight games, and people started realizing that, ‘Oh, he can return kicks, too.’ I started going on as a punt returner, and it was like, “Oh, he can return punts, too.”
He finally got a chance in 2012 to build on his preseason performances. A lot of that had to do with staying relatively healthy, but after returning 22 punts for 354 yards and a touchdown and catching 17 passes for 222 yards and a score, Harris had to hit the restart button.
Bisaccia took over a year ago for former special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis, who’s now with the Bears, giving Harris another set of coaches he had to influence. Bisaccia, however, had caught a glimpse of Harris before the 2012 season in San Diego.
“I got a chance to watch him when we scrimmaged against him,” says Bisaccia, who used to coach special teams for the Buccaneers and Chargers. “At that time, he was a kid who looked like he was having a lot of fun when we practiced with him. He showed great quickness.”
It didn’t take long for Bisaccia, who’s been around a handful of multi-dimensional special teamers, to get Harris more involved on coverage units while continuing to use him as a returner. Bisaccia gives credit to Harris’ blockers, but the special teams coordinator also says his return man is the leader of the band.
“When I’m out there, everybody looks for me to go out and make the plays to keep the team momentum up,” Harris says. “We get a big return or we get a big play down on kickoff or whatever, the guys look at me like, ‘Dwayne, we need this.’”
Harris, the Cowboys’ do-it-all return man, just wanted the opportunity.