Before Taj Harris could catch touchdowns, he needed to block

first_img Published on October 31, 2018 at 7:21 am Contact Josh: [email protected] | @Schafer_44 Facebook Twitter Google+ Freshman receiver Taj Harris’ facemask dug into a defender as he chopped his feet. His hands grasped the outside shoulders of the white North Carolina State jersey in front of him. With Nykeim Johnson catching a screen pass two yards behind Harris, the 175-pounder swung his hips inside, blockading his corner from the sideline.For a brief moment, Harris held up his defender. Johnson had a one-on-one with a defender to the outside.Harris caught a 24-yard pass three plays before. But on the first series in Harris’ first career start, clearing a path for Johnson was more important. Head coach Dino Babers’ receivers always have to block before they can catch.“It’s always been the same rule, if you want the ball you’re going to need the block,” Babers said. “And they need to protect their brother and if they don’t block, you don’t have to play.”Following a career-high six receptions, 86 yards and a touchdown against North Carolina State, Harris was listed as an official starter on Monday’s depth chart. The 6-foot-2 freshman has caught one more pass than the week prior, tracing back to Connecticut on Sept. 22. For the self-proclaimed “small” Harris, much of his freshman season with No. 22 Syracuse (6-2, 3-2 Atlantic Coast) has been defined by adjusting to the physicality of the college game.AdvertisementThis is placeholder text“Everything takes technique. You’re not just going to come out here and run and get open out here,” Harris said. “You gotta perfect your craft. You gotta run routes hard, got to be able to do the things that coach wants you to do.”Harris, who described his pre-college self as a runner, said the first few weeks of fall training camp conditioned him for the rest of the summer. He remembered running multiple 110-yard sprints with the “smalls” group. Harris and other skill position players are required to finish each rep in 14 to 16 seconds, Harris said.Harris ran a 4.52 second 40-yard dash in high school, per 247sports.com, but he “really wasn’t into lifting.” To improve at blocking, which Harris had done minimally in high school, as he also split time at quarterback, he needed to be stronger. Harris said the strength coaches challenged him to be angrier with the weights and not feel sorry for himself.Now, more than halfway through the season, Harris knows how to squat. He smiled thinking of his favorite exercise. “Definitely hang cleans,” he said, referring to the explosive powerlift where the athlete thrusts a barbell from their knees to their shoulders.“I just got to be able to attack, go at it and go hard,” Harris said. “Just like I said, not feel down for myself like, ‘Oh I can’t do this.’”Laura Angle | Digital Design EditorThe weight training is meant to carry over to stalk blocking, when the receiver mauls his defender in a one-on-one open field situation. While the strength helped, the weight room mentality carried over as well.During fall camp, Syracuse receivers and defensive backs battled in stalk blocking drills nearly every day, Harris said. There he was introduced to the size and physicality of college cornerbacks, often tussling with fellow freshmen Trill Williams and Ifeatu Melifonwu, who both weigh about 200 pounds.“He hates me for calling him (it), but he’s skinny right now,” Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey said. “Once he puts some weight on, that kid’s going to be something special.”Harris leaned on redshirt senior wide receiver Jamal Custis and junior Devin Butler. Custis named Butler as the best stalk blocker on the team, noting that when the team watches film, the junior receiver’s tenacity is often highlighted. But it’s not all aggression. Custis taught Harris to be patient, letting the defender choose his direction. From there, with a wide base, the wide receiver rides out the cornerback, meaning the defender is overcommitted to one side.“The game is kind of faster for a freshman,” Custis said. “Sometimes freshmen get discouraged … I could see his potential and I knew he was a good receiver. So I tried to tell him like, ‘You know, that that’s just a learning curve, you know, just to stick through it, trust with what we got going on.’”Against NC State, two quarters after Harris opened up the sideline for Johnson, he faked a block for a screen on a run-pass option play. As the defenders crept up to defend the run and screen threats, Harris snuck behind them. Dungey pulled the ball away from the run fake and dumped it out to Harris at the 15.Harris dashed to the end zone, spiking the ball before waving his arms to pump up the crowd.“The one thing about receivers, Babers said, “is they all love to catch the ball.”center_img Commentslast_img