CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — There is a popular cross-sports simile that playing safety in football is like playing center field in baseball.
But that doesn’t mean football teams should steal the baseball team’s center fielder and make him a safety.
Or does it?
“It was outstanding,” coach Chris Ash said. “I was really nervous going into the game about how he would handle it. It wasn’t until Thursday at practice where we started to feel good about him going out there and being able to perform. We were trying to throw a lot at him in a short amount of time. He’s an intelligent young man and really worked hard to learn what he needed to learn.”
There’s a caveat here, of course.
Harris wasn’t plucked right off the diamond and put on the gridiron. He is a third-year member of the football program who led Rutgers with 39 catches for 481 yards as a wide receiver in 2016.
But Harris is new to safety, switching positions about 10 days ago during a bye week and making his first start for an injury-depleted secondary. Now, he’s a candidate to be Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week.
“I was all for it,” Harris said. “I figured someone was going to have to do it. When they asked me, I was like, ‘Cool, I’ll go over there.’ I feel like I’ll be able to do it again if need me. I’ll be ready for the challenge.”
Harris was more eager than you might expect because his season was off to a disappointing start on offense.
The redshirt sophomore slipped behind three true freshmen and graduate transfer Damon Mitchell on the depth chart and had one catch for four yards in four games after returning from a one-game suspension.
“Everything was going wrong as an offense,” Harris said in explaining his early-season struggles. “But I feel like things clicked today as an offense. I’m going to try to get back over (to offense) and do both. That’s what they told me.”
With Rutgers leading 21-10 in the second quarter, Illinois quarterback Jeff George Jr. threw high and behind his intended receiver. Harris was patrolling the middle of the field like he was between two corner outfielders, grabbed the ball and returned the interception for 26 yards.
“Your eyes are keyed on one thing,” Harris said. “In center field, I feel like you are a little more laid back. At safety, you have to be aware of everything coming at you. A little bit (similar). Not much.
Harris is projected as a possible early-round pick in the 2018 MLB First-Year Player Draft because of his package of speed, power and on-base-percentage. He ranked second in the Big Ten with 23 stolen bases, seventh with 31 walks and 13th with eight runs in the 2017 regular season.
The biggest difference between sports is the physical contact. And Harris went from absorbing hits to delivering the blow.
“I knew we were going to have to stop the run to win the game, so I had to come down,” Harris said. “A couple early, I was cutting back. As I got a couple hits in, I was going down and making tackles. I was fine in the pass game. I just had to get that first hit out of the way.”
Rutgers was pressed into an emergency situation because Saquan Hampton is out indefinitely and Kiy Hester didn’t play despite assurances that he would all week. Both safeties were injured against Ohio State two weeks ago.
Jawuan Harris tracked down the ball for the interception! Of course he’s known for covering ground in the outfield. pic.twitter.com/s6e0YSOYLw
— Jimmy Gill (@jgill027) October 14, 2017
Harris said that his only defensive experience was in youth football, but he played only offense at powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida, where two-way players are rare.
“We didn’t run a lot of calls today because of (Harris) being in there, but he executed every one of them that we needed to make, and made some outstanding plays to help us win the football game,” Ash said. ” We were hoping Kiy would be back. He couldn’t go. We had nobody else.”