PISCATAWAY — One week after the Rutgers football season ended, Jawuan Harris went back to work. But unlike his teammates, the Scarlet Knights wide receiver spent the first week of December honing his baseball skills inside the Rutgers Athletic Center.
“I feel like transferring back to football is much smoother than transferring to baseball,” he said. “I wanted to get into the batting cage as soon as possible, and get back to (baseball) work.”
Harris is a rare two-sport standout who is expected to leadoff Friday for the Rutgers baseball team in its season-opening series at Miami.
It would be hard to script a more complete year than Harris’ 2016, when he earned All-Big Ten Freshman honors for baseball and football team.
The 5-9, 190-pound Pembroke Pines, Fla., native batted .278 with five doubles, two triples, three home runs, 22 RBI and a conference-leading 37 stolen bases while starting 46 of 47 games.
He also led the Scarlet Knights with 39 receptions for 481 yards and three touchdowns after redshirting during his first semester in 2015. Harris’ receptions total ranked first in the Big Ten among first-year players.
Still, Harris wasn’t satisfied with his baseball debut.
“I actually thought I’d do a little bit better than I did last year,” he said. “With the circumstances of not getting outside as much (after the football season) and not getting live at-bats, I felt like I was playing from behind and trying to catch up. First couple of series were kind of rough for me.”
It’s why Harris was eager to get back into baseball shape immediately after a 2-10 football season. Following the fall semester, he went home to Florida and worked with his former St. Thomas Aquinas baseball coach.
By the time he returned to Rutgers in January, the new indoor baseball/softball facility was operational.
“I feel like, because of this indoor facility, I was able to get a lot more live swings and a lot more cuts than I did last year,” Harris said. “We’ve been getting a lot more curve-ball work from lefties and righties, so I feel like I’ve been able to see a lot more. I feel like my strikeouts should go down, batting average should go up, stolen bases should go up. Those are my expectations, and as a team, I feel like we just look a lot better than last year.”
After playing about a quarter of his games in left field as a rookie, Harris will be in center Friday, when the Scarlet Knights face No. 17 Miami in Coral Gables, Fla.
“He has a tough job of playing both sports, but I think both sports help him,” Rutgers baseball coach Joe Litterio said. “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.”
Litterio is cautiously optimistic heading into his fourth season as the coach, and Harris is a big reason why. His team was 27-28 overall and 9-15 in the Big Ten last season.
“(Harris has) unlimited (potential),” Litterio said. “Last year, he did all of it on ability. For as many stolen bases as he had, he still has to become a better base stealer. His speed gets him through a lot of that. We were able to teach him a few things, especially with this facility, where we can do live [pitching] and he can get a little more comfortable running off the pitcher. I think he has to hit better this year. He did well as a freshmen — probably better than I expected — but I’m expecting even more out of him.”
Harris shares that sentiment, believing the seven pounds he added from last season should translate in some more “pop” this spring.
“I threw on some more weight from football strength and conditioning,” Harris said. “So I think I’ll be able to turn on some balls and put them into the gap (for) doubles, triples and home runs.”
When spring football practice begins in late March, Harris said he will spend part of his day in the Hale Center participating in meetings with the football team. After leading the Scarlet Knights in receiving in six of the final eight games after Janarion Grant suffered a season-ending injury, Harris is expected to be a big part of a spread attack installed by new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill this spring.
“I’ll be over there in the morning,” he said. “I’ve already been in there talking to the receivers coach, and I actually talked to Coach Kill a couple of times. We’re going to have the same lingo, but I’m sure he’ll have some more wrinkles that I’ll have to learn. It’s nothing major. I’ll pick it up in a quick jiffy.”
The only player in the Big Ten to start in both football and baseball, Harris said he believes he’s only scratching at the surface of his talents.
“There’s no ceiling,” he said. “Just keep getting better — that’s the goal.”