Harrison, Knights wide receivers settle into roles as pass game develops under first-year offensive coordinator
As Mark Harrison peered into the Arkansas night Sept. 22, he had an opportunity to accomplish something he had not in nearly two years. The moment he had waited for since then lasted only eight seconds.
But after staring back to the line of scrimmage following a 60-yard touchdown catch against the Razorbacks, Harrison understood its worth.
“I feel like it was something I needed and my team needed,” he said. “My team held my back through thick and thin with what I was going through. My confidence level now is really shooting to the sky.”
Through four games, Harrison has 17 catches for 165 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He caught only 14 passes and scored as many touchdowns last year in 12 games.
He struggled with confidence, purpose and most often the deep pass.
And yet Harrison was only a year removed from a career season in which he led the Rutgers football team with 44 catches, 829 yards and nine scores. So he bided his time in the offseason, when a new coaching staff took shape with new evaluations.
“I stayed patient, waited on my moment and my chance and my opportunity,” Harrison said. “I really felt like, ‘OK, this is my time. This is my year to really show people that I’m back, and I’m here for my team.’”
The Harrison that emerged in 2010 was a perennial deep threat, averaging 18.8 yards per catch — second-best on the team — and becoming a reliable target despite working with two quarterbacks.
But after Mohamed Sanu’s banner 2011 season and a string of drops in meaningful games, Harrison was a shell of his former self on paper. Despite setting a career high with 22.8 yards per catch, he started only four games.
He dropped a pair of passes at Louisville — one a sure-fire touchdown — and promptly answered questions from the media afterward. He responded the next week against West Virginia with a 45-yard touchdown, but those moments were few and far between.
“I’m always confident, but sometimes there’s a little doubt when you miss a ball,” Harrison said. “It’s how you build on it and how you get through it. The last time I was that confident was my sophomore year, to be honest.”
Teammates continue to take notice.
“Coming off the past years and the success that he’s had, you just want to … keep building on the things you’ve done in the past,” said senior wideout Tim Wright. “I feel it’s very important for his confidence and pride, and for the team to trust him.”
Wright, meanwhile, is enjoying the best season of his career.
He leads the Scarlet Knights with 18 receptions for 228 yards after a 2011 campaign in which he recorded only 11 and 147. A knee injury in training camp cut his 2010 season short.
He has become the Knights’ most viable third-down receiver, Harrison said.
“Everybody’s getting their identities,” he said.
Sophomore Brandon Coleman continues to emerge as one of the Big East’s most dangerous deep threats. He has 11 touchdowns in 17 career games, and he averages 41.7 yards per score.
Junior Quron Pratt materialized as a steady receiver a year ago, and he enjoyed his most productive game of the season at Arkansas with five catches for 85 yards.
And while Harrison’s identity is still being scripted, his early showing is encouraging.
“It’s so reassuring when you know doing your job is helping your team win,” he said. “It gives you a better feeling about what you’re doing and how you’re executing.”
Rutgers’ per-game pass average still hovers around last year’s mark of 241.2, but the Knights have become more efficient. They rank third in the conference in pass efficiency and are on pace to cut their interceptions in half.
Offensive coordinator Dave Brock deserves the credit, Wright said.
“Coach Brock does a good job of putting the receivers … in their strengths,” he said. “That’s how we’re operating right now. I feel like we all bring some good stuff to the table.”
None was more important than Harrison’s re-introduction to the national stage.
With Rutgers nursing a two-point lead, Harrison collected sophomore quarterback Gary Nova’s pass at Arkansas’ 35-yard line, evaded a diving tackle 20 yards later and left a defender behind him.
Time will tell if his checkered past follows suit.
“That was clutch,” Coleman said. “For him to come through is big for his confidence. I was so happy. That sealed the deal.”
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