Rutgers two-sport star Jawuan Harris needed all of 10 days to prove his athletic skills transferred from the outfield to the defensive backfield.
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Harris a three-star football recruit from powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., when he signed with Rutgers over Louisville, Michigan State and others in 2015. He redshirted as a freshman for the football program but still started 46 games for the Scarlet Knights' baseball team, hitting .278 with 22 RBI and 37 stolen bases — first in the Big Ten and fifth nationally — primarily as a center fielder.
Six months later, the 5-foot-9, 195-pounder — whom head football coach Chris Ash said in May 2016 was a full-time baseball player and he'd have the chance to contribute on the gridiron — finished the 2016 football season as the team's leading receiver. Not only was he a rare two-sport athlete in a power conference, he was excelling as a two-sport athlete in a power conference.
"He has a tough job of playing both sports, but I think both sports help him,'' baseball coach Joe Litterio said in February. "I think the fall with football really gets him into that football mentality and he brings it over to the baseball team, which I love.''
Despite a slight dip in his 2017 baseball statistics, Harris still projects as an early-round pick in the 2018 MLB Draft. HERO Sports' MLB Draft analyst Jason Churchill says he's even heard comparisons to Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr.
"Harris is a quick-twitch athlete with average or better tools across the board, including 70-grade speed," Churchill said. "He lacks instincts on the bases, which is typical for a two-sport player who has yet to focus on one sport full-time, but is a natural fit in center field.
"He possesses plus bat speed, has displayed above-average raw power and started to produce in games last spring, creating more consistent loft thanks to a mechanical fix with his swing path. He compares — in a few areas favorably — to Vanderbilt star Jeren Kendall [No. 23 pick of the Dodgers in the 2017 draft], and the early grades from area scouts puts Harris in the Top 50 with potential first-round consideration."
The instincts might not be 100 percent on the bases but they sure looked good in Rutgers' win over Illinois in Week 7, when he started at safety, his first game on defense since youth football. He had a team-high 11 tackles, one interception and one forced fumble just 10 days after switching from receiver.
"He worked extremely hard to prepare himself for that opportunity," Ash told HERO Sports, seemingly unfazed by Harris' immediate success. "I think him being a wide receiver helped him make that transition over to defensive back. He understood coverage . . . and offensive concepts — splits, formations and things like that he learned as a wide receiver."
They moved Harris because the redshirt sophomore was buried on the depth chart of a struggling offense. He had one catch in three appearances, or 15 fewer than he had through six games in 2016. And though Ash admits he was nervous about how Harris "would handle it" until late last week, he also knew the two-sport background would allow for a smoother transition than with other players.
"We'd love to have all our players be two-sports athletes to be honest with you . . . mostly in high school then moving on to college" Ash said. "I do think that helps him. It shows that he's got tremendous overall athletic ability. He's got intelligence . . . he's a very intelligent football player."
The move worked not only for Harris' stat line, but for the entire team. Rutgers entered the game allowing 37.7 points and 434 yards per game to Power Five opponents. The Illini did score 24 points on 394 yards but 14 points and 172 yards came on two fourth-quarter drives after the Scarlet Knights built a three-score lead.
"I'll give credit where credit is due; I think his coach [co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach] Bill Busch did a hell of a job with him too getting him prepared," Ash said. "Jawuan did a lot on his own and I think Bill Busch deserves a lot of credit helping [him] make the transition and getting him ready for gameday."
Joe Litterio and Harris' other current and former baseball coaches also did a hell of a job.