Harris answers WVU's call

Originally Published: September 22, 2004
By Bruce Feldman | ESPN The Magazine

Forget the bravado, Kay-Jay Harris wasn't very confident that he could tough it out last Saturday. Sure, his West Virginia Mountaineers were battling their arch-nemesis Maryland, a team that had beaten them by a combined score of like 445-9 in the past three meetings, but Harris, WVU's star tailback, was nursing a tender hamstring.

X-rays had shown there was no tear, just a strain. Team doctors had assured him that he couldn't make the injury worse. Still, Harris said he felt about 65 percent at game time. "I said I didn't think I could go," Harris says.

Kay-Jay Harris
West Virginia failed to live up to expectations.
But then, fate intervened. Harris got a sign. So what changed his mind? "On the second series, Coach Rod (Rich Rodriguez) said 'Kay-Jay get in there.' I was definitely skeptical, but they came calling and really, I had no choice. Not in that game."

(Quick sidebar: For all the credit Rodriguez got when he moved up the coaching chain from Tulane to Clemson to WVU because of his expertise in straining defenses with his spread attack, the biggest reason why he has built a legit top-10 program is his charisma and ability to relate to his players and gain their respect.)

Harris not only scored the Mountaineers' first TD, he ended up with 32 carries for 142 yards as WVU knocked off the Terps 19-16. Harris says he got so caught up in the moment he didn't even realize he played 58 snaps in the game, although he definitely felt like he just didn't have his normal burst to break the big run.

"If I had my legs I could've run for 200 on 'em easily," he says. More importantly, though, the victory gave the Mountaineers their first 3-0 start since 1996. "I think we answered a lot of questions," says Harris. "There's some guy at the school newspaper who kept saying there's no way in hell we could beat Maryland so it felt good to make him eat his words too. Of course, now everyone's gonna play us that much harder because they want to be the ones to knock us off."

Next week's trip to Blacksburg should be the only regular-season game left for WVU where an opponent is closer than a touchdown underdog.

Random Notes

  • The Bowden vs. Bowden matchup will no doubt get hyped ad nauseum, but keep an eye out for perhaps a more compelling head-to-head battle in the Clemson-FSU game. That's when two of the best athletes on the field (actually the entire ACC) lock up when FSU cornerback Antonio Cromartie tries to cover Tiger big-play man Airese Currie.

    The backstory: Last summer Currie was hospitalized after a fight with Seminole track athletes during the NCAA outdoor track and field championships after he was struck with a bottle and required surgery to repair three fractures to his cheekbone. Cromartie wasn't at that meet, but he is a member of the Seminoles' track team and was there when FSU's team was involved in a confrontation with Clemson runners at the ACC indoor meet.

  • Mike Leach has cranks out big-numbers quarterbacks like clockwork. His latest QB creation is Sonny Cumbie, but Texas Tech might have developed something potentially more eye-popping in sophomore split end Jarrett Hicks: a 2,000-yard receiver. The 6-foot-4, 210-pounder, a former sprinter and long jumper, had eight catches for 211 yards last week against a decent defense in TCU. Hicks already has amassed 511 yards on 25 catches. We know the term "on pace" usually doesn't hold much water at this point of the season, but keep in mind that Leach isn't too bashful when it comes to airing it out and don't be shocked if this was only the first of many 200-yard receiving days for the Red Raider.

  • Last year UNC didn't have the worst pass defense in the country, but the Tar Heels were pretty close (they ranked 111th.) But this season things are different. Why? Start with the emergence of Jacoby Watkins. The 6-0, 175-pound sophomore cornerback was the key to UNC's upset of Georgia Tech last week. He not only picked off two passes, but more impressively he won a jump ball with Calvin Johnson, Tech's spectacular 6-4 freshman wideout, near the Tar Heel end zone.

  • Yes, we are blown away by Adrian Peterson and were impressed by Larry Birdine, who has to be the world's best pass rushing/figure skating/Danielle Steele fan (and more importantly a potential double-digit sack guy for OU in the not-too-distant future) but after watching Rufus Alexander pummel Oregon ball carriers last week, we're starting to think the Sooners won't miss Teddy Lehman so much after all. The 6-1, 225-pound sophomore from Baton Rouge (21 tackles, 1 forced fumble) seems to have that same knack that OU great Roy Williams had for making every tackle with the ferocious snap. Although the real underrated aspect of Alexander's game is his ability to play in space and cover pass receivers, something that should really come in handy against Texas Tech's speedy RBs Oct. 2.

  • Think Minnesota's stocked at running back? Not only does Glen Mason have two of the country's top 10 backs in Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney, but also next fall the Gophers get Jay Thomas. A 6-0, 190-pound at Minnesota's Tartan High, Thomas isn't that highly regarded on the recruiting "experts" lists, but don't tell that to anyone at Richfield High who witnessed Thomas roll up 363 yards rushing on just 13 carries for 6 touchdowns and 447 all-purpose yards (all school records) in a 41-28 victory over Richfield. Thomas also had an interception and scored on a 79-yard kick return. One of the state's top 100- and 200-meter men, he might also run track for the Gophers.

  • Ohio State has a ridiculous history of cranking out big-time DBs, and if we learned anything from the Buckeyes win over NC State, it's that OSU has another stud D-back in Donte Whitner. The 5-11, 185-pound sophomore (14 tackles, 2 TFLs) plays much bigger than his size. He was a big factor in the Buckeyes run support (his thunderous stick on T.A. McLendon set a tone for OSU) and he also picked off a pass and ran it back 24 yards.

  • Heath Miller definitely looked the part of being a John Mackey Award frontrunner when he snagged six passes for 54 yards and two TDs last weekend, but lost in the All-American's wake was the play of backup TE Pat Estes. A devastating blocker, Estes had four catches and the look of an NFL prospect too. Better still, the two-TE attack also should help UVA in the red zone, especially when the schedule gets tougher.

  • As if getting dogged for constantly being hailed as "the only quarterback in the history of college football to ever lose five times to the same school," FSU's embattled QB Chris Rix apparently has now even attained an almost as rare distinction -- a spot in coachspeak. When speaking with a football assistant coach last weekend we heard this description of an opposing quarterback's main weakness: "because he has shown the tendency to Chris Rix every now and then, and (Team X's) whole philosophy is based on not Chris Rix-ing."

    Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book Cane Mutiny: How the Miami Hurricanes Overturned the Football Establishment is out in bookstores. He can be reached at bruce.feldman@espn3.com.

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