One of the hottest quarterbacks in the country has also emerged as one of the sweetest stories of the 2011 college football season.
Miami's Jacory Harris, who has been the object of ridicule by fans and media alike, suddenly looks like a completely different QB this fall. Truth is, the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Harris is starting to look like the field general many figured he would become over two years ago when his career at Miami got off to such a splashy start. In those days Harris' name was getting thrown around for Heisman consideration.
But then came sloppiness, recklessness and injury, which soon gave way to eroding confidence -- the worst thing that can happen to a quarterback. The QB who once was known as "Heart Attack" when he was in junior high because he thought he had one, gave a whole lot of Miami fans and coaches some panic attacks almost every time he dropped back, as his mistakes multiplied the more he pressed and consciously tried to avoid throwing more picks.
In August I visited with Harris about his adjustment to the new Miami coaching staff as he prepared for his last season at UM. Harris was remarkably candid. He told me football had stopped being fun last season. A year that had begun with such high expectations sank fast when he threw four INTs at Ohio State in a Miami loss in September. Coaches said a few of the picks weren't Harris' fault, but that didn't take the sting away. The team fizzled with adversity. Losses piled up. "I was thinking, 'the season's lost.' There almost seemed no point in playing. Our season was down the drain. I lost my spirit.
"I was afraid to make mistakes. I kept thinking, 'Don't throw an interception!' "
Making the matter worse was seeing the coach who recruited him and many of his buddies from the Miami area to UM, Randy Shannon, get fired late in the season after a home loss to USF. "It was so hard to see that. I felt like we were the reason that happened. If we had just taken care of business and just done things a little harder ... " he said as he paused for a few heartbeats.
"I had to look in the mirror. I had to stop blaming people for my mistakes. I should've told the guy before he ran that route or done more extra work before the season. I felt like there was more I could've done to be better prepared. I was real down about things."
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The new staff brought a clean slate, he said. They also brought a new system, one which enabled the Miami QBs to have more control of the offense. New offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch's message: "Let it rip. Don't be afraid!" That was probably was a scary thought to UM fans, but Harris embraced the chance.
"Just knowing that the coaches have confidence and faith in me by giving me the keys to drive the car is the biggest difference," he said, talking about Fisch's decision to give his quarterbacks more freedom to get in and out of plays at the line, something they say they didn't have before.
Still, Harris' season began with more disappointment. The NCAA suspended him one game for his involvement with rogue booster Nevin Shapiro. The Canes lost their opener at Maryland and many Miami fans were convinced that sophomore Stephen Morris was more a viable solution than Harris, who had thrown 32 interceptions in the past two seasons, more than any QB in the nation. But Miami went with Harris the next week against Ohio State. Harris had almost as many sketchy moments as good ones that night, but UM rode stud tailback Lamar Miller to a victory. Harris was picked off twice and almost a third time, which could have been for a pick-six and turned the game around. But the Canes stayed with Harris despite what many outside the program seemed to feel. Since then, an interesting thing has happened. Jacory Harris has blossomed, playing better than ever. Probably playing better than any Miami quarterback of the past decade.
On Saturday he carved up North Carolina on the road, leading UM to five scoring drives on all five first-half possessions as he fired three touchdown passes and hit on 16 of 22 attempts for 233 yards. In the second half, UNC got more pressure, but the Tar Heels couldn't rattle Harris and the Canes got a good road win. Harris has now a stretch of 10 TDs with no INTs over his past 14 quarters, moving him up to No. 8 in the nation in passing efficiency. Two of those games came on the road at Va. Tech and UNC, the nation's No. 8 and No. 19 defenses.
"My confidence has skyrocketed from where it was last year," Harris told me after the game Saturday. "I told myself before the Ohio State game, 'This is not the year to be scared. Just go out there and do me.' "
Even though there has been speculation of Harris refining his delivery or making tweaks which help explain the dramatic improvement, he said that's not the case. "There haven't been any tweaks in my mechanics."
It all comes back to his mindset. He's not afraid to be aggressive anymore. He's stepping into throws again and driving the ball. He's attacking but not forcing things. On average Harris says he changes about eight to 10 plays a game. But often, as was the case against the Tar Heels, that just means changing protections.
He said he doesn't worry too much about what people say about him, other than what the coaches say. Of course that's easier said than done.
"We're all human," Harris said.
Anyone who has ever spent more than 15 minutes around Harris has to feel good for him. He's always had a likable side that comes through. He never tried to make excuses or blame injuries. If he was out there on the field, he said that meant he was 100 percent.
Of course, this story could be a little sweeter. The Canes could be undefeated or undefeated since he returned, not 3-3. Harris could have powered his way into the end zone in the final seconds on a fourth-and-goal keeper against K-State or he could have led the Canes on a winning scoring drive last week to win at Va. Tech. But neither happened and he can't worry about that any more. He has six games left in the regular season. Probably a bowl game too.
Back when I saw him in camp, he offered this prediction: "I'm not going to regret anything. I feel like this year can be special."
Despite the record and three losses coming in the final minute, it actually still is. We've seen a player silence a lot of doubters, starting with himself.
• I only got to see about 10 plays of the Alabama-Ole Miss game so when I saw a glowing tweet linking video of some majestic Trent Richardson 76-yard touchdown run, I eagerly clicked on it from the Oregon press box. A friend and I watched the clip, which was shown at field level, we both kinda shrugged our shoulder about what was so special until we saw the Tide's bruising back put on a stop-start-and-cut maneuver to leave Rebel DB Senquez Golson looking silly. It would make the great Barry Sanders proud. Heisman moment? Sure looked like it.
Richardson and the Tide are rolling. He ran for a career-high 183 yards and four TDs. I think it's time to put a running back No. 1 on my weekly Heisman list, topping Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Landry Jones, Tyrann Mathieu, Sammy Watkins, et al.
I figured Richardson would have his chance to make his big Heisman move next month when LSU visited 'Bama, but the 220-pound back already has surged into the national consciousness in a big way. Get this quote: "There are a lot of similarities between Trent and Walter Payton," Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix told Rick Cleveland, the venerable Jackson Clarion-Ledger columnist who covered Sweetness going back to his high school days. "He's got that deceptive speed, that quickness, that toughness, that strength, that stutter-step that Payton had. He's got it all."
Heady stuff. Oh, and that Tide D is downright scary. Ole Miss jumped out to an early lead, scoring on a 72-yard drive. That must have made Nick Saban's guys pretty ornery. Ole Miss managed only 69 yards the rest of the game.
The 141-yard outing by Houston Nutt's team was the school's worst in more than 13 years. It's looking more and more like this could be Nutt's last year in Oxford. The Rebels aren't just losing. They are getting blown out in SEC play. The big questions is whether the school will dump AD Pete Boone first. My hunch is they will have a lot of change there at Ole Miss even though it'll cost the school more than $6 million to dump Nutt.
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• Most underrated QB? Try Washington's Keith Price, who has replaced Jake Locker and is playing better than Locker ever did. Price doesn't have prototype NFL size, but he sure has the feet, presence and accuracy. Steve Sarkisian has compared him favorably to former FSU Heisman-winner Charlie Ward. Price went 21 of 28 with four TDs as U-Dub routed Colorado 52-24. Those numbers are becoming routine for Price. He has been overshadowed by Andrew Luck and even Matt Barkley, but people need to keep an eye on this guy. He's up to fifth in the nation in passing efficiency, connecting on better than 69 percent and has a sterling 21-4 TD-INT ratio.
• Aside from Wisconsin I don't feel like the Big Ten has another legit top 15 team. The second-best team seems to be Michigan State, who handled the Wolverines once again. MSU RB Edwin Baker ran all over the Wolverines going for 167 yards on 26 carries, which were similar numbers to the damage he did against Michigan in Ann Arbor last year.
• Stat of the Day courtesy of colleague Brett McMurphy, who pointed out that on the heels of Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy getting his 40th win since his now-legendary "I'm a Man, I'm 40" rant: Before rant: 13-15. After: 40-14. Wow. Earlier in the week, Gundy joined me on my podcast and explained how that rant has helped the Cowboys program, especially from a recruiting standpoint. After watching a lot of OSU's win at Texas, I'm still skeptical whether the Cowboys have enough defense to actually win a BCS title, but they have the firepower.
• OSU's arch-rivals Oklahoma struggled a lot more with Kansas than the final score indicated. At one point OU had made four trips into the red zone and produced only one touchdown against the nation's worst defense. But you can't fault WR Ryan Broyles. He is fantastic. I'm kinda torn between him as the Sooners' top Heisman hopeful over QB Landry Jones. Broyles' 57-yard TD grab made him the NCAA career leader in receptions with 317. This is a record that should get more attention than it has.
• Scratch Ga. Tech from the unbeatens as Paul Johnson's team once again struggled against a defense that had added time to prepare. The Jackets are now 5-9 since Johnson arrived at Tech four years ago when an FBS opponent has more than a week to prepare for the triple-option as noted by Rivals.com. UVA held Tech to 296 yards, more than 250 below their season average.
• Illinois also was knocked from the unbeatens. One reason: Ohio State D-lineman John Simon. Every time I looked at this game, Simon was in the Illini backfield. He had four TFLs and two sacks but it seemed like he had twice that.
• Anyone remember the term "Schematic Advantage?" In the past 12 quarters, Charlie Weis' offense at Florida has managed only two touchdowns. Getting shut down by Alabama and LSU given the Gators youth at QB is no shocker, but seeing UF manage only six points against the league's 10th best defense was pretty jarring.
• Cincinnati is second in the country (plus-12) in turnover margin and the Bearcats are 5-1, having already won more games than they did in 2010. Last season they were second-to-last in the country in turnover margin at minus-15 and finished 4-8.
• Despite having only two returning starters on the O-line, Stanford still leads the country in fewest sacks allowed (2). Obviously having an adept QB with a great savvy and good feet like Andrew Luck is playing a big part.
• Two teams in the country have been allowing opponents to connect on 75 percent of their passes, Arizona and New Mexico, the two programs that already have fired head coaches.
• You can read more about my take on the ASU-Oregon game on the site. As has become the norm, the Sun Devils continue to endure discipline issues. I'd like to see a Vontaze Burfict Cam on the combustible ASU linebacker for every moment he's on the field. It would be riveting. Of the first 15 TD drives ASU had allowed this year, seven of those drives were aided by a Sun Devils penalty and a handful of those touchdowns actually have come the next play after ASU is flagged, including Oregon's first TD on Saturday night.
• Western Kentucky, which was 94th in scoring D, held FAU to 121 total yards in a shutout, marking the third time the Owls (0-6) have been held to three points or less this year. It's sad to see FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger going out like this. He has had a great career and did some remarkable things over the past 30 years in coaching.
• Temple notched back-to-back shutouts, drilling Ball State 42-0. Buffalo was last week's victim (34-0). The Owls trail only Alabama in scoring defense.
• Best Under the Radar Coaching Job this year: First-year coach Mark Hudspeth at Louisiana-Lafayette. He's got QB Blaine Gautier playing some great ball. ULL has rolled off six wins in a row and is 6-2. Since losing to Oklahoma State in the opener 61-34, Gautier is hitting 72 percent of his passes and has thrown 10 TDs and no INTs.