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Texas WR John Harris breaks out during big-time senior season

Not even head coach Charlie Strong saw this coming.

John Weast

A few months ago, Texas Longhorns wide receiver John Harris was nothing more than another failed member of the 2010 recruiting class and a possible attrition candidate.

Now he's on the Biletnikoff Award watch list as one of the nation's best wide receivers and one pace to become the first 1,000-yard receiver for Texas since Jordan Shipley in 2009 with 814 receiving yards on 48 catches and six touchdowns.

Now he's the favored target of Texas sophomore quarterback Tyrone Swoopes and a player with an outside chance of getting a shot in the NFL after his Longhorns career ends.

Put it all together and Harris has turned in one of the most remarkable seasons in recent memory. So the Longhorn Network had Harris and Swoopes sit down to talk about their chemistry and how it came about.

This a story about a connection that started last season when the two were impersonating opponents on the scout team. Harris had put on weight in an attempt to play some tight end, but had fallen out of the rotation, passed the year before by younger receivers after suffering a foot injury that derailed what appeared to be a promising star to his career as a redshirt freshman in 2011.

Wanting to put in extra work, the two started throwing to each other, eventually beginning to establish some trust.

But both players were still a long way from contributing for the Longhorns.

The staff met with Harris during the spring to gauge whether he even wanted to be a part of the team, with wide receivers coach Les Koenning asking him to stick around and give it a shot. To give the new coaching staff a chance to coach him.

For his part, Harris got his weight down from 225 pounds to 218 pounds to improve his speed and conditioning.

Even at that time, as he had during the previous fall, Harris thought about transferring or quitting. A former Texas Tech player encouraged him to make his way out to Lubbock, where another oversized wide receiver in Jace Amaro had become an NFL draft pick playing in the high-flying Red Raider offense.

During the Orange-White game to cap off the spring, Harris was hardly a factor, catching a single pass for a 22-yard touchdown from walk-on quarterback Trey Holtz with just over 20 seconds remaining in the game.

And so after sticking it out through the spring, the lone remaining member of the 2010 wide receiver class at Texas wasn't really any closer to contributing than he had been.

"I said I don't know where it came from, because I didn't see it in the spring," head coach Charlie Strong said recently.

But play caller Shawn Watson tells a slightly different tale, one illuminated by spending more time with the wide receiver.

"It started in spring ball," said Watson. "I'd even go back further than that, I think he showed his character and his heart during winter conditioning. That was the first glimmer of his commitment and the Hulk that might be out there. He started making plays in spring on a consistent basis. It's one thing to make plays, it's another thing to be consistent in making plays, and that's what he's done. That's the tale of a guy who's totally committed in what they're doing, and he's balling. He's playing really good football, and that started in spring ball and carried into spring training camp and, of course, has been part of our season."

Known as a confident player coming out of high school at Naaman Forest in Garland, former basketball teammate and current Horn Damarcus Holland said that Harris was a guy who bullied 6'10 center Prince Ibeh down low on the hardwood in practice and was "one of the most cocky people in school."

After coming to Texas, though, Holland said that all that confident deteriorated. But it's back now and Harris said that the transformation happened during the fall.

"When I got in fall camp, I knew I was competing with Marcus and a lot of those other guys for a starting spot," Harris said. "It just got to a point in camp where I was like, hey, you can go get this job, and you can be a big impact on the team. I started making plays and being more consistent. The more consistent I got, the more confidence I started building in myself. I think that's where it began was in fall camp."

Even working with former quarterback David Ash, Harris showed that he had the potential to break out this fall in the opener against North Texas, catching seven passes for 110 yards and a touchdown against overmatched defensive backs.

It was a career-best performance that nearly equaled his career totals of nine catches for 190 yards and three touchdowns.

Success against a team like the Mean Green hardly guaranteed success the rest of the season, though, especially after Ash was forced to end his career because of his concussion issues.

Yet, Harris showed it wasn't a fluke as one of the few bright spots in Swoopes' debut against BYU the following week in scoring the team's lone touchdown.

john harris ucla

Richard Mackson -- USA TODAY Sports

On the list of big plays for Harris this season, his catch on fourth down against UCLA is right near the top.

harris fourth down

It came in an important moment to set up a touchdown and helped solidify the type of connection that Swoopes and Harris could show on the field. Not to mention the incredible hands by Harris to extend outside the frame of his body to bring in the football.

Harris told Swoopes when they first started playing together that if his quarterback put the ball up for him, he would go and get it. For his part, Swoopes has paid back Harris with the confidence to let him make plays.

Having that confidence in Harris has come about because the wide receiver has paid back his quarterback for targets by fighting for the football with his strong hands -- there have been some drops, but for the most part, Harris has been incredibly impressive in his ability to make tough catches.

In the games against Iowa State and Texas Tech, Harris brought in passes that could have been intercepted simply because he's bigger, because he's more physical, because his hands are stronger, and because he wants the football more.

So instead of having to worry about hitting Harris in strides and in the hands, Swoopes knows that he can underthrow his receiver when there's not much separation and Harris will adjust to the football.

And so at school where Harris was once an afterthought, he's now a catalyst for the entire offense.

"When he plays well, when he gets going, the whole offense gets going," Strong said. "They kind of feed off of him."

All the hard work culminated last week in a career-best performance from Harris, who gained 165 yards on six catches, including a 68-yard play that wasn't supposed to happen because the target on the play was an underneath receiver. But Swoopes saw Harris streaking down the field past a host of Red Raider defenders and laid the ball out for the longest play from scrimmage this season for the Horns.

Two more catches went for 35 or more yards.

Of course, it hasn't always been easy this fall for Harris -- he's fumbled the ball twice and has dealt with a disturbingly high number of dropped balls that could have already pushed his production past the 1,000-yard mark.

The confidence, though, has remained. When he fumbled against Iowa State, Harris told the coaches that he would get it back. And so he did, making what amounted to the game-winning catch down the sideline with time running out in regulation to induce the best visual of the season from Watson.

Now he says that he believes he's the best wide receiver in the conference, even better than West Virginia star Kevin White, one of the really serious contenders for the Biletnikoff Award.

And don't say that Harris never thought this was possible.

"I always dreamed it," he said this week. "Even before I got hurt, I thought I could be that guy at one point in time. After I got hurt, it kind of faded away a little bit. I kind of lost a little bit of confidence. Then I never thought I'd have a chance to be that guy here or put up the numbers that I've been putting up. Just being here right now is just a blessing, and I'm just riding with it."

Yup. Let's ride, John.

john harris ou

Matthew Emmons -- USA TODAY Sports