- Max Olson, ESPN Staff Writer
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AUSTIN, Texas -- If there’s a now-or-never moment for John Harris, it might be right now.
Sure, the Texas wide receiver is only a redshirt sophomore. He was three more seasons to play. His best football is still ahead of him.
But Harris, finally healthy after a broken foot cost him all but three games last season, knows he has catching up to do. Texas’s top three receivers -- Jaxon Shipley, Mike Davis and Marquise Goodwin -- are locked into starting jobs. Behind them, experience is in short supply.
Harris’ two career receptions give him two more than five other receivers competing for snaps. He knows he needs to find his niche if he wants to find his way into Texas’ gameplan.
“I want to do what I can do to be a part of this team, and find my way to help out our offense in any way possible,” Harris said. “I just want to get on the field and enjoy a full season.”
Harris and converted defensive back Bryant Jackson are listed as Shipley’s backups at the “H” receiver position on Texas’ depth chart. Many expected the 6-foot-3, 218-pound wideout would assume a role as the Longhorns’ No. 3 or No. 4 option at receiver. But Texas coach Mack Brown said his comeback remains a work in progress.
"Missing all of last year probably hurt him some," Brown said. "He's fighting to get back in the mix."
And he has got plenty of receivers fighting him for snaps. True freshmen Kendall Sanders, Cayleb Jones and Marcus Johnson have quickly emerged as second-string options going into Texas’ season opener.
The new kids are going to play. It’s time for Harris to start making some plays, too.
His lone memorable moment from 2011 was a testament to his uncommon athleticism.
Texas’ lead was only 13-9 midway through the third quarter when Harris got a reverse toss from Fozzy Whittaker.
No time to spot and set his feet, he released a pass on the run, off his back foot, just as a Rice defender drilled him. It floated more than 45 yards, landing exactly where a well-covered Jaxon Shipley could snag it in the end zone.
Not a bad way to introduce yourself. But two weeks later, Harris broke a bone in his left foot during Texas’ win over UCLA.
He was back in pads two months later, preparing to return for the Texas A&M game. He took one wrong cut in a practice that week and re-injured the foot.
“I kind of took it as, well, maybe it isn’t my time to come back yet,” Harris said. “Maybe I need to learn a little something more. I sat back and watched the team to find my niche. I needed to figure out where I fit in this offense next year.
“It took a lot of growing for me to figure out what I wanted to do. I think it helped me mature more to stay focused and get ready for this season.”
The foot still bothers him every so often, but Harris is back at full strength. And he thinks he has discovered that niche. He senses his real advantage is as a blocker, and Shipley can see Harris has made gains in that area throughout the offseason.
“Obviously, he’s a big guy,” Shipley said. “He wasn’t so good at it, but he’s put a lot of attention and focus on it and he’s gotten a lot better at blocking. It’s helping us out.”
Run blocking typically isn’t something that rookie receivers pride themselves on. Then again, these aren’t typical freshmen.
Sanders, Jones and Johnson have been making an impression on their teammates since they first set foot on campus this summer. They’ve earned the confidence of the veterans in the receiver room.
“I think any of them could come out and play right now,” Shipley said. “They’re all great young receivers. I think they can help us. I feel like they’re ready.”
Harris is well aware of the challenge they present. He’s glad they’re around. They’ve raised the level of competition for all involved.
“I’ve never seen three freshmen come in and work like that,” he said. “I don’t even think we worked like that. Those three freshmen, they want to play. They push us every day to do better."
Now it’s time to see if Harris can make a push of his own.