Junior walk-on responds well to challenges.
FAYETTEVILLE — Having personally coached Josh Harris on last year’s special teams, second-year Arkansas Razorbacks assistant but first-year defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads isn’t giving 5-10 linebacker Josh Harris short shrift.
With first-team inside Will linebacker Dre Greenlaw just observing this spring mending a broken foot, Rhoads and inside linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves have been running Harris first-team this spring and the junior walk-on from Pine Bluff and Watson Chapel High has responded in the two spring scrimmages with 17 tackles and forced one fumble.
Harris has been among the August preseason scrimmage and spring scrimmage tackle leaders since he redshirted as a freshman in 2014 and among the leading tacklers on special teams lettering in 2015 and 2016.
Yet it seemed he logged the fewest linebacking minutes of lettering linebackers though his performance now may earn him significant second-team linebacking time even when Greenlaw returns in the fall.
Rhoads really likes his play and has since last year and how Harris has fit into the new 3-4 defensive scheme that coach Bret Bielema and Rhoads implement.
The feeling is mutual.
“ I love the defense and Coach Rhoads, I love the guy,” Harris said after the Razorbacks Tuesday held their last NCAA-mandated noncontact practice of the spring. “He was the kickoff coverage special teams coach (Harris’ eight tackles was third on last year’s Arkansas special teams) and I really got close to him through that. I just love the transition so far.”
The 3-4 enables Harris and another undersized, savvy walk-on, 5-11 redshirt freshman Grant Morgan of Greenwood running the second team in Greenlaw’s absence, to prosper, Rhoads said.
“Both are smart guys (finance major Harris is on the SEC Honor Roll),” Rhoads said. “Both guys when you make a call you can count on them being where they are supposed to be and playing as hard and as physical as they can. In this system, those spots get restricted a little bit in their space and that benefits guys that maybe aren’t the fastest and the biggest and the strongest. When you are not having to play hash to hash or hash to sideline, you’ve got enough people to cut down that space and show up a little bit.”
Rhoads and Hargreaves know that Harris inevitably finds the right space if he has time to find it.
“ It feels good,” Harris said of his longest run with the first team. “Being the guy I am, 5-10, I’ve got to be patient with the things I go through. At the end of the day, I’ve got to be in the film room and do the work and then my time comes and my name is called you’ve got to capitalize.”
That’s what his father, former NFL tight end Jackie Harris, has instilled.
“He played in the league for 12 years and he’s just been a mentor,” Josh said. “I call him or text him every day and he just tells me to ‘Stay the course, stay strong. My mom, too. Those two have been a big help. Being patient is key. Every day is a grind. If you stick to it and stay faithful your chance will come.”
How has he compensated being a 5-10 linebacker in a big man’s game?
“Brains,” Harris said. “You’ve got to be in the film room. You’ve got to know what’s happening before the play starts. That just goes along with studying film. The more you know the faster you are.”
While he hasn’t logged much actual linebacking game time in the fall, Harris does appreciate how special his special teams time has been and is.
“A lot of people don’t want to be a part of it but without special teams, there is no football,” Harris said. “So every time you get a chance to be a part of special teams you’ve got to take advantage of it every day. I’m on kickoff, punt, punt block return and kickoff return.”
Sophomore first-team tight end Austin Cantrell of Roland, Okla., was supposed to have his knee “checked out” after Cantrell was injured late during last Saturday’s scrimmage, Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema said.
Apparently, it checked out well because Cantrell checked into practice Tuesday.
“I’m fine, Cantrell said after practicing Tuesday. “It’s nothing at all. Just twisted it a little bit. It didn’t bother me at all today.”
After redshirt apprenticing in 2015 behind Mackey Award winner, Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle and lettering behind 2016 graduate Sprinkle as last year’s backup, Cantrell and fourth-year junior Jack Kraus of Bentonville are the Razorbacks most game-experienced tight ends.
“It feels great,” Cantrell said of becoming a football veteran. “I’ve been working for it. It’s good to finally be here.”
The Razorbacks are off today and will practice full pads Thursday and Saturday but won’t full-scale scrimmage again, Bielema said, until the April 29 Red-White intrasquad game at Reynolds Razorback Stadium concludes spring drills.