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Multi-sport athlete receives larger role in Rutgers offense

Redshirt freshman Jawuan Harris earned a starting spot on the depth chart after scoring his first career touchdown against Howard. – Photo by Dimitri Rodriguez

Jawuan Harris wasn't expected to play a major role for the Rutgers baseball team in 2016. 

With junior Mike Carter, who was named to the Preseason Big Ten Players to Watch List, slated to start in center — Harris' main outfield position — junior Tom Marcinczyk in right and true freshman Luke Bowerbank in left, it was hard to see where Harris would fit into the Scarlet Knights' crowded outfield.

But, following an injury to Carter early in the season, Harris was slotted into the role of Rutgers' everyday centerfielder and took full advantage of the opportunity.

The true freshman bursted onto the scene posting a .278 batting average and an on-base percentage of .365 across 46 starts. He paced the Big Ten in steals with 37, a mark that was also good for fifth in the nation. To top off an impressive debut campaign on the diamond, Harris was named to the All-Big Ten Freshman team.

The only real downside to Harris' first baseball season was that while he was wreaking havoc on the base paths at Bainton Field, he was missing out on Chris Ash's first spring camp as head football coach at Rutgers.

Harris, who took a redshirt his first true football season on the Banks, dove into the playbook as much as he could during baseball season, but when the multi-sport athlete got back onto the football field for the first time at the start of summer camp, he was lacking the reps that the rest of the upperclassmen-heavy wide receiver group already had under their belts from the spring.

The Pembroke Pines, Florida, native landed on the two-deep depth chart at one of the three wide receiver slots when training camp commenced and remained there throughout, but found himself in a similar situation when the season began.

While Harris was in the mix at wide receiver, he was behind seniors Janarion Grant, Carlton Agudosi, Andre Patton and junior John Tsimis in the pecking order. In the opener against Washington, Harris got some snaps at receiver, but wasn't targeted once by junior quarterback Chris Laviano and was mostly in the game as a blocker.

But it was in the Knights' second game against Howard that Harris would get his first opportunity to shine and, just as he did in baseball season, took full advantage of it.

On the first play from scrimmage for Rutgers on offense, Laviano threw a pass behind Agudosi. The ball deflected off the senior wide out's hands and into the air, before falling right into the hands of a Bison defender.

On the next offensive drive, Harris came onto the field in replace of Agudosi. Harris saw a considerable increase in his snaps from the previous week and late in the first half, he made the first reception of his career on a 17-yard catch from Laviano.

Then, at the beginning of the fourth quarter, Laviano connected with Harris on a 29-yard pass for the first touchdown of his career.

"It was a great feeling," Harris said of scoring his first touchdown. "I had a feeling I was going to score a touchdown knowing how they were going to play that play, we ran it earlier and they kinda jumped on it so we ran the play again and I knew what they were gonna do and I wound up being wide open again."

Was that feeling of getting into the end zone better than the rush of hitting a home run?

"They're smack dab in the middle," Harris said, after pausing to think about it. "That's a good question right there."

Jawuan Harris' performance against Howard got the attention of Rutgers coaching staff enough to promote him to the first-team offense. The speedy receiver was listed as a starter, along with Grant and Patton, ahead of Agudosi on the Knights' depth chart leading up to this Saturday's game against New Mexico at High Point Solutions Stadium.

"Jawuan has a gifted skill set. He's got speed on him. He's got a natural understanding for how the game of football works, operates, how spacing goes in the passing game," said offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer. "He's had a really good fall camp, better than I thought he would, especially not having all of the spring ball reps that some of these other guys did. But he's got good speed on him and good hands ... I think he's a very, very valuable asset for us." 

As Rutgers navigates through the early portion of their schedule, they are still seeking out playmakers to be the co-stars to Janarion Grant on offense. Robert Martin is back at full strength and will make his return as the feature back this week and Grant has 11 carries for 137 yards and three touchdowns.

But while the Knights certainly have threats out of the backfield, they have struggled to find that Leonte Carroo prototype receiver on the outside. Grant, who has 11 catches for 80 yards, is a threat on screens, but isn't the kind of receiver that's going to create separation from the opposition 15-plus yards down the field by way of running crisp routes.

The two receivers that Rutgers was hoping could fill the role of being possession receivers in its offense, Patton and Agudosi, have combined for just 6 catches for 74 yards and one touchdown.

Both of Harris' receptions against Howard were a result of strong route-running downfield. He may not be the second coming of Carroo, who was both a possession receiver and deep threat, but Harris flashed enough for the coaching staff to believe they should incorporate him more into their offensive game plan moving forward.

With the increase in touches, Harris will have the chance to make the same kind of impact on the gridiron as he made on the diamond for Rutgers, which would be an impressive feat in the early years of the multi-sport athlete's career.

"Again, when I talk about the list of playmakers, I've already mentioned Janarion and Rob Martin as two of them. I would throw Jawuan Harris as another one that has playmaker ability that's in that top group of guys that we need to find ways to get the football to," said head football coach Chris Ash.

For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @EricMullin_ and @TargumSports on Twitter.

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