Entering the spring, the main storyline surrounding the Texas wide receiver corps was whether or not junior wideout Mike Davis would return to to form. Or, at times, whether he would return to the program at all.
Coming in a close second was finding a third receiver behind Davis and sophomore Jaxon Shipley, a difficult task with the commitment of Marquise Goodwin to track. Sure, Goodwin has practiced at times this spring for the first time in his career, but he hasn't been in contact drills and his availability for fall camp and the start of the season remain in jeopardy if he makes the Olympic team as a long-jumper.
Mr. Spring himself, senior DeSean Hales, started hot, but the buzz around him has faded a bit as the spring has gone on.
In that context, then, the return to health of sophomore receiver John Harris has become an important storyline for a team still seeking that elusive third receiver, who doesn't necessarily have to be particularly elusive.
It's been a long, sometimes difficult journey for Harris in his return from a foot fracture he suffered in practice following the UCLA game.
For any athlete, one of the most difficult aspects of dealing with an injury is the loss of camaraderie with teammates, the loss of that time bonding on the practice field and in between the chalk under the bright lights, making the return to health a sweet, sweet nectar:
It feels really good. It has been awhile since I have been out there. I am trying to get back into shape and catch up with the team. I feel like a part of the team again.
As if the initial injury following the game against UCLA wasn't bad enough, Harris rehabbed only to re-injure the foot ($) prior to the Thanksgiving contest against the Aggies:
I was planning to come back against Texas A&M. My foot was pretty much healed. I was out at practice one day, and I just took the wrong step. I took a step back. But I'm just happy to be back and looking to stay healthy.
Harris emerged from the injury as a more mature player and person following such an emotional rollercoaster:
It's been rough. I've had my times when I've been down. And then I've tried to pick myself back up. To me, it was a great learning experience. I'm glad I got the opportunity to grow, even though it wasn't always positive, it helped me grow up.
Junior quarterback Case McCoy was happy to have Harris back practicing last week:
John is a big target and has big hands. I thought he had a great day today. As long as we have as much depth as possible at receiver, I think that is when we are going to be at our best. We want to air the ball out, and we want to throw it. When we get fresh legs in there as much as possible, it will be nice. John's a big target, and he wants to be good. We are excited to have him back out there.
Since sophomore Miles Onyegbule is set to make a permanent move to H-back in the fall when Texas finally has the depth at receiver to make it viable from a reps perspective, Harris will be the only big receiver on the roster with experience, with only incoming freshman Cayleb Jones the only other pass-catcher taller than about 6-0 or 6-1 in the receiving corps.
As such, Harris could become an important part of the offense in the short passing game, where he could use his big body on slants to screen defenders. Given the continued struggles Texas experienced scoring in the redzone in 2011, the return of Harris could also be a boon close to the goalline.
Though he isn't known as a particularly elusive player after the catch, Harris was probably underrated in high school after the catch -- as a junior, he consistently showed the ability to make the first defender miss on short hitches before playing quarterback as a senior.
Despite the limited reps, several things stand out about Harris based on that short time on the field for Texas.
One was a play from the spring game last year, when he caught a touchdown pass on a post route over the middle from Garrett Gilbert, beating Carrington Byndom. The play happening right in front of me and I was lucky enough to notice that Harris hadn't created separation early in the route, but used a little shoulder fake on Byndom that created just enough of a window for the pass to get in. It was one of the subtle moves a receiver can make that could often go unnoticed, but it was the type of instinctive, natural play that bodes well for future success.
Harris' big body won't just help him in the passing game either -- it will help the Longhorns tremendously in perimeter blocking, both in the outside run game (like the jet sweep action) and in the wide receiver screen game. The latter suffered noticeably in the absence of Harris with Onyegbule the only big body Texas could throw out there.
Look for more yards after the catch from receivers like Shipley, Davis, and, if he participates in the fall, Marquise Goodwin, as well as incoming freshman Kendall Sanders, who could excel in the screen game.
At the start of spring practice, head coach Mack Brown confirmed that losing Harris had indeed been a significant blow for the team:
We really need him out here. We missed him probably as much as anybody in the fall; big, strong, great blocker.
The final main takeaway from Harris' return? The former high school quarterback provides more options for co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin on trick plays after throwing a touchdown pass against Rice in the first game. It may be a stretch to hope that he could exceed Shipley in consistency there, but Harris is also perfect as a passer in college, too.
The upside for Harris still isn't clear, but he's back working with his teammates and that's a good thing for Harris and for the Texas Longhorn football team.