October 9, 2008

Rebs' young stars earning bigger roles

Enrique Davis and Andrew Harris were two of the most heralded recruits of Houston Nutt's first recruiting class at Ole Miss.

And when they arrived on campus this summer, they more than looked the part of instant contributors.

College football, however, is a complicated sport, and the nuances of the game can make the transition from Friday night to Saturday afternoon difficult.

That has been the case for both Davis and Harris, but recently, the lights have begun to shine brightly, and their roles in the second half of Ole Miss' season figure to become far more prominent.

Through six games, Davis is fourth on the Ole Miss team in rushing with 27 carries for 87 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Harris, meanwhile, has caught one pass for six yards. For both players, those statistics aren't what they imagined they would be at this point in the season. However, neither player is frustrated.

"I know it just takes time," Davis said. "Everything takes time. You can't just expect to go out there and know stuff. You have to study film, study the playbook and get the reps out here on the field, the mental reps as well as the physical reps."

"It can get frustrating, but like the coaches tell me, I'm young and I still have a lot of time to play," Harris said. "I just have to forget a play and have a quick memory. Whatever happens, happens. I just have to be ready to bounce back and when the opportunity comes, I have to be ready to take advantage of it. I'm just waiting for my opportunity. I'm watching the older guys, and when my number's called, I'm just ready to go ahead and take off."

Both Florida natives _ Davis is from Lynn Haven and Harris from St. Petersburg _ spent last season at Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy. Their decisions to attend Ole Miss were not independent of one another, so it should come as no surprise that the two friends have taken turns motivating each other through the difficult transition to the college game.

"When stuff isn't going right for him at running back, I say, 'Let's go. Let's pick it up,'" Harris said. "When I'm not catching the ball or having a practice like I need to have, he'll say, 'Let's pick it up.' That's what we do. We have each other's back."

Davis, a former Parade All-American, was widely considered the No. 1 prep school player in the nation last season. However, fellow freshman Brandon Bolden has gotten far more playing time, in large part because Bolden grasped the offense quicker and also because Bolden proved to be more reliable in pass protection. Rather than sulking, however, Davis threw himself into the playbook, and in recent weeks, his pass protection skills have improved dramatically.

"I just feel like I'm going to go out there and whatever happens, happens," Davis said. "It was a big change learning these pass protections. When you go to college, you have to know more than just how to run the football or catch the football. You have to know how to protect the quarterback. That's the most valuable thing on the offense, and you have to know how to do that. You have to know who might come on blitz on this side and know when to leave the other side. You have to know your responsibilities. Now that I know that, I'm ready. I feel like I've got a good grasp. At first, I was thinking a lot and wondering exactly what I was supposed to do, but now it's coming naturally. It's like riding a bike."

"I think he's coming along," added Ole Miss offensive coordinator Kent Austin. "At that position, there's a lot that's required. It's not just running and hitting the hole properly. There are protection issues. You have to be receiver in our offense. He's making a lot of progress. He works hard. He's got a great attitude."

That positive attitude has earned Davis major points with Nutt, who developed a reputation at Arkansas as a guy who could develop running backs and put them in the league. Davis' recruiting was one of Nutt's first tasks when he got to Ole Miss, and the two have formed a strong relationship. Nutt has preached patience to Davis, and Davis has listened intently.

"It's a whole different deal now compared to just a month ago," Nutt said. "It's a whole different ballgame. He'll get more reps. He'll get some time now. We're not afraid to put him in there. This has been good for him. …I really recruited him when most of the staff wasn't here yet, so that's really where I got a head start. They're used to being Friday night heroes. They're used to being the guy. It's not like that when you come to college. You just can't roll Friday night into Saturday night. It's a different level. He understands that. He's smart enough to understand that and he knows how much he's learned. He has a better feel."

Harris, meanwhile, has been fighting established wide receivers such as Mike Wallace, Shay Hodge and Dexter McCluster for playing time. Throw in talented sophomores Lionel Breaux and Markeith Summers and the competition has been heady. However, Harris' time appears to have come. Quarterback Jevan Snead barely overthrew Harris on what would have been a touchdown pass in this past Saturday's 31-24 loss to South Carolina.

"Oh, man, that was it," Harris said wistfully. "It takes time. That split-second I got held up a little bit, it just came off my fingertips. That was it right there."

Harris appears to be earning a larger spot in the Rebels' gameplan for the rest of the schedule, one that resumes on Oct. 18 at No. 2 Alabama.

"I really like Andrew," Austin said. "He's very competitive. He's big and strong. He runs well and he's really tough. He's a tough receiver and I like tough receivers. I think Andrew is going to be an outstanding player for us. I really do. I'm a big fan of his."

"He's doing great," Nutt added. "He works so hard. He has a great ethic. He just needs to get a couple of balls and some success and he'll take off."

Both players know they will likely have huge roles next season, but neither is looking ahead. There are six regular-season games left, and the Rebels' goal of earning a postseason bowl game is still achievable.

"I'm going to go out there and help the team out as much as I can," Davis said. "I love the game of football, and I'm going to continue to learn. I love playing the game. I just want to show my love for the game on the field."

"I have learned to just stay with it," Harris said. "If you drop a ball, don't get down because the way this game is, if you get down, this game will beat you up because it's so fast."



 

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