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Changed Texas WR John Harris finally breaks out

Back in January, Charlie Strong connected with John Harris on a "wake-up call."

Cooper Neill

"John, this is Coach Strong."

"Hey, coach."

"John, you need to wake up. You're going to have to improve and you're going to have to get better if you want to be a part of this team."

The conversation between new Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong and senior wide receiver John Harris back in January didn't exactly go like that, except for the last sentence, but when Harris recalled the conversation after leading the Horns with seven catches for 110 yards and a touchdown against the Mean Green on Saturday night, he did refer to their January meeting as a "wake-up call."

Consider that call answered. And make no mistake -- it was one that Harris badly needed.

Listed at 203 pounds out of high school, Harris had bulked up to a listed 225 in 2013 as a junior when he made the transition to playing some tight end.

There was a 54-yard touchdown in the opener against New Mexico State and the Hail Mary reception just before halftime against Iowa State in the narrow escape from Ames, but the rest of the season Harris was a non-entity, seriously imperiling his future heading into the Charlie Strong era as a player who had never seriously contributed.

Part of the issue with his weight -- never particularly gifted with great speed for his size, Harris had lost the short-area burst that had allowed him to make defenders miss on hitches in high school as a junior.

Improved conditioning has made a big difference for Harris, now listed at at a leaner 218 pounds.

"Being in a lot better shape, it feels a lot better to move around out there," Harris said last week. "Being able to breathe and last longer in plays is where I think I've taken the most and biggest stepping strides in my game."

Unfortunately, it's a story that was all too prevalent at Texas in recent seasons. Remember how former five-star prospect John Chiles ended up at about the same weight at quarterback, then had to get lean to try to make an impact wide receiver?

And as with all the players who had coasted during the final moments of the Mack Brown era, Harris had to undergo a more significant transition than just maximizing his speed and endurance.

"I can tell a lot of difference in myself," Harris said last week. "I've been getting pushed by the coaches a lot more. I'm in a lot better shape and dealing with the heat a lot better. I'm a lot better mentally and physically, so I guess you could say I'm a changed person."

Called the "most steady performer and biggest performer of our whole entire training camp" by play caller Shawn Watson last week, It took some time for that to become evident on Saturday night, as Harris dropped the first two passes from junior quarterback David Ash. After the game, he admitted that it took him some time to find a rhythm.

"Yeah, there were a little bit of nerves," he said. "I saw some open field and wasn't looking at the ball coming in."

But Ash kept targeting Harris, showing the level of trust that he has in his senior wide receiver.

"It means a lot, especially whenever you can be trusted by these coaches and by your teammates," said Harris. "I think that's a big deal for anybody. Everybody wants to be trusted, and it's a good feeling to know that these guys do trust me and do have a lot of faith in me."

And even though Harris hadn't contributed much during his first four years on campus, Harris is a survivor. A four-star prospect by Rivals out of Garland Naaman Forest, Harris was the only member of the 2010 receiving class to make it this far.

Fellow four-star prospect Chris Jones of Daingerfield washed out quickly without ever seeing the field, the jewel of the class, Fort Worth Dunbar's Darius White, had attitude problems and never contributed, and DeSoto product Darius Terrell moved to tight end before heading to North Texas, where he's failed to make an impact.

Along with other members of the 2010 class like linebackers Jordan Hicks and Demarcos Cobbs, Harris wants to finally leave an impact on the program.

"All of us fifth-year guys, we want to finish this right," Harris said. "We came in here the year after the national championship, and to come in the next year and go 5-7 was a little bit tough.There might have been a little complacency. That's hard for us. We haven't gone to a really big BCS bowl game since we've been here, so to finish this year right and try to help Texas get back to a 10-win record or 11-win record would be great for us. We just want to help Texas get back to where it needs to be, and we want to start that with Coach Strong."

If the first game was any indication, he's going to help the team by working in the flat from the bunch formation, a look Texas liked to pass out of on Saturday, and as a possession receiver and big target for David Ash who can screen smaller defenders.

Now at the X position to the short side of the field, Strong wants him there for exactly those reasons -- he's big and physical and can beat coverage. It's a position that Watson said is perfect for him and it certainly appeared that way on Saturday evening.

With defenses shaded towards the strong side of the formation, unless opponents want to keep two safeties deep, Harris will get one-on-coverage.

And conceding a defender to that side of the field would only open up the running game and receivers to the field like senior Jaxon Shipley and junior Marcus Johnson.

Better conditioned, more mature mentally, and more trusted by his quarterback, Harris was able to recover from his two early dropped passes to make some significant plays for the Horns -- a 28-yard catch on the first play after the interception by Jordan Hicks set up a short touchdown run, his 20-yard catch on 3rd and 6 in the second quarter extended the drive that set up Ash's touchdown run, and the 8-yard touchdown catch early in the third quarter that put the Horns up 28-0.

The catch on third down was particularly impressive, as Harris used his big body to shield a defender, then kept fighting for extra yardage as half the North Texas defense swarmed him. For a player who hasn't always been known for working hard in burnt orange, the catch was emblematic of the new John Harris.

In the season opener, Harris looked like he was quickly becoming the security blanket for David Ash. With Ash potentially lost for his career due to more concussion symptoms, will Harris have the same rapport with sophomore Tyrone Swoopes?

It's hard to say, but one thing is clear -- Harris isn't going to let his last chance to make an impact at Texas slip past him.