UM’s Harris, now healthy, awaits his moment to shine

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — He has dreamed of the play hundreds of times.

Sometimes, it’s a post pattern. Other times, it’s a screen play that he takes to the end zone. In most cases, he admits, it’s a fade pattern.

For Michigan receiver Drake Harris, his dream scenario has taken so many forms, but he’s just waiting for it to take shape in reality.

After missing his senior season at Grand Rapids Christian and his freshman season at Michigan because of hamstring injuries, Harris is looking forward to his first touchdown at Michigan. He admits that it’s been on his mind but isn’t going out of his way to force it to happen.

“I dream about it every night. I’m just waiting — I think it’s coming soon,” Harris said Tuesday. “I just have to keep going out there doing what I’m supposed to do and my opportunity will come. I honestly don’t know. It might be a fade. I don’t know.”

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At 6-foot-4, 185 pounds, and with 4.4 speed in the 40, Harris has the potential to be a prime target for quarterback Jake Rudock and a lynchpin in the success of the Wolverines offense. But the progression seems to be working his way into the receiver rotation, alongside with Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson.

Following two years of setbacks with hamstring issues, just getting through the first two games this season without aggravating the injury is better than any first step beyond a defender. For Harris, just getting beyond the mental aspect of his recovery and not worrying about re-injuring the hamstring is critical.

“I’m past that point; I don’t think about it anymore. I haven’t had any problems with it since the second week of spring ball,” he said. “The rest of the spring and summer, I felt fine. Now I feel 100 percent. This is the best I’ve felt since the injury.”

Harris drew praise from coach Jim Harbaugh in spring practice for working his way back.

“Drake has done a really fine job,” Harbaugh said during camp in late August. “He’s been really sharp. He’s been healthy, and he’s competed strong and good all camp. ... I’m excited about him every day. He’s one of those youngsters who really makes our football team better.”

In the first two games, though, Harris has only two passes for zero net yards.

That’s a far cry from Harris’ junior season at Grand Rapids Christian, where he had a dream season with 91 catches for 2,016 yards and 23 touchdowns. Those numbers haven’t translated at Michigan, which has been somewhat frustrating for Harris.

“It was tough at first, just coming from high school and being the best player on the team and coming here, you have to work your way up,” Harris said. “You’re a freshman and you have to work hard because there are seniors or juniors in front of you. It was an adjustment period, but I think I’m adjusting pretty well.”

But Harbaugh saw Harris’ value almost immediately after taking the job last year and when spring practice came, Harbaugh was assessing his players’ abilities and called on Harris for double duty.

“He wanted to see if he had any two-way players and he wanted me to play a little cornerback,” Harris said, “but I played it for a little bit and stuck at wide receiver.”

Tough start

Just getting through spring practice, back on the field and staying healthy is big for Harris.

After arriving as a heralded recruit, Harris had high expectations as a freshman, but the injury prevented him from nearing any of that potential last year.

Instead, he had the disappointment of sitting out the season, as he did his senior season of high school, and staying stuck in neutral instead of driving toward a starring role in the starting lineup. The harder he tried to return, the worse it seemed to get.

“It just happened. I just kept trying to come back too early and that’s why I kept rehabbing,” Harris said. “Once I took some time off and gained strength and rehabbed it every day, it just went away.”

It’s a tale of being at the top of his game as a junior, then having to fall back to his foundation to figure out how much he cherished the opportunity he had.

“(I was) taking it for granted a little bit, back in high school,” he said. “I didn’t have an injury until my senior year in my sports career — not realizing it can be over just like that. You have to enjoy every moment you have in playing and taking every rep in practice like it’s a game-like rep and working hard and enjoying the moment.”

Even though he’s back to good health, Harris isn’t taking it for granted anymore. He still worries about keeping the injuries away, taking more of a role in proactive and preventive measures. That involves periods in the ice tub, along with plenty of stretching and regular maintenance that “every athlete does.”

The injury and time off also have given Harris perspective. He’s not worried about statistics; instead, he’s just looking to get on the field and let whatever happens happen.

“It feels really good, battling hamstring injuries and injuries over the past couple years,” he said. “It’s a great feeling to be back on the field and playing a lot.

“It was tough, battling injuries. Not being able to go out there and play with my friends and play the game I love was hard. I didn’t have any doubt that I was ever going to come back.”