Every time I start to do a deep dive on a Rams rookie, I start with their recruiting pages coming out of high school. From there, I work backwards and forwards, but I find that to be a comfortable starting point when learning about “what had been” and “what would come to be” from that all-important moment when a football recruit is choosing a college.
Many five-star prospects are duds. Many three-star prospects are the word that rhymes with “duds” that is more complimentary.
Jacob Harris is the first one I’ve come across who basically does not exist. If you want to start researching Harris by looking into how colleges viewed him as a football player, then you will be starting at a dead end.
Because through three years of high school, Harris had never played football.
Not even Jacob Harris could have assigned himself any stars as a football recruit, but six years after he chose to play Division I soccer at Florida Gulf Coast, five years after he changed his mind and chose to walk-on the Western Kentucky football team, four years after he transferred to UCF, and two years after he made his debut as a wide receiver, Harris is now the most interesting Rams rookie of the summer based on what small amount of information has escaped minicamps and OTAs.
Harris, who primarily played free safety and quarterback during his one year of football at Palm Harbor High in Florida, is virtually guaranteed to make LA’s roster after the team selected him in the fourth round last month. His draft status and team needs at tight end are factors into that, but so are plays like this, should Harris continue to make them:
The Rams want Jacob Harris to play tight end.
In high school he played striker (I typically don’t know soccer positions other than “goalie” and “guys that kick the ball around the field”). Then he went to a football field and played safety and quarterback and according to high school coach Reggie Crume, “never played one down of receiver” for Palm Harbor because he couldn’t catch:
“Jacob’s where he’s at now because he wants to get better,” said Crume, now head coach of Calvary Christian High School in Clearwater. “He played safety for us; he didn’t even play receiver. I mean, he never played one down of receiver for his entire senior year because quite frankly, he wasn’t comfortable catching a football yet like most soccer players.”
As Harris’ senior season went on, Crume said he started catching the football better which prompted Crume to appoint Harris as the kickoff returner.
Harris returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, including an 86-yard score against Dunedin High School on Oct. 10, 2014.
Harris didn’t decide to pursue football instead of soccer until after signing day of his senior year, but as a 6’5 player with speed typically reserved for 5’7 guys like new Rams teammate Tutu Atwell, it was relatively easy for Crume to help Harris find an opportunity. Harris became a preferred walk-on at Western Kentucky, which at the time was a surprisingly strong program.
In 2015, the Hilltoppers went 12-2 and finished 24th in the AP poll under head coach Jeff Brohm. Western Kentucky even had a couple of skill players at the time who would go on to become NFL draft picks: wide receiver Taywan Taylor was a third round pick of the Tennessee Titans in 2017 and tight end Tyler Higbee, as you know, was a fourth round pick of the LA Rams in 2016.
Brohm then coached the team to an 11-3 record in 2016 and as many men in his position to, took his talents to a bigger program: he went to Purdue, where they had a tight end named Brycen Hopkins. In 2020, Hopkins became a fourth round pick of the LA Rams.
That’s right. Jeff Brohm has relatively close ties with three tight ends, all of whom were chosen in the fourth round by the LA Rams in 2016, 2020, and 2021. I don’t know why this makes me think the NFL is “rigged” but what the hell is this about? Should Brohm not turn things around for the Boilermakers (he’s 19-25 so far), perhaps Sean McVay will be the first to give him a call and he’ll ask him to coach LA’s tight ends.
He won’t even have to ask for their phone numbers.
After a short stint at Western Kentucky, before he ever had a real chance to get on the field, Harris sought a transfer to be closer to his family because of medical issues facing those who are close to him.
“My aunt had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer,” Harris remembered. “My uncle as well was in and out of the hospital with heart problems. It was my first time being away from home and didn’t feel right.”
Harris moved back home to help his family out after redshirting the fall semester at Western Kentucky. The decision meant a lot and still does to his mother.
“He’s always been very family-first oriented,” Renee Maloney said. “I think, to me, it just shows his character.”
Keep in mind that during Harris’s time of searching for a football team that would have a place for him, he wasn’t playing football. That’s really notable given that Harris hadn’t started playing the sport until his senior year of high school. If you were in the 2015 football recruiting class, and drafted by the NFL in 2021, it’s entirely possible that from 2013 to 2021, you played a good seven years of organized football.
Jacob Harris played in three: one as a high school safety/special teamer, two as a wide receiver, and he finished with 49 career catches. But you don’t get drafted in the fourth round — even in an odd year like this one — without working for it.
While he was helping out at home, he was also training and working multiple jobs. In between shifts as a bus boy at an Italian restaurant and an assistant manager at a sporting goods shop, he was talking to coaches at FIU, USF and UCF. FIU and USF were experiencing coaching changes at the time. UCF was the school he really wanted to go to, but they weren’t getting back to him. His former high school coach at Palm Harbor, Reggie Crume, was able to get his film to Scott Frost and Ryan Held, who were at UCF then.
“Coach this is low-risk, high-reward for you guys,” Crume, now the head coach at Calvary Christian High School, remembered telling the UCF staff. “Worst-case scenario...you get a great kid in your program that’s a practice body, but best case, he continues to grow and get better and becomes a huge part of your success at UCF.”
Harris spent 2017 on UCF’s scout team, then appeared in 13 games in 2018, but only on special teams. It wasn’t until midway through that season that UCF actually gave him a football scholarship. They knew this wasn’t a typical player who had no stars coming out of high school.
In 2019, the second season under head coach Josh Heupel, who took over for Scott Frost after Frost left for Nebraska (similar to Brohm, Frost’s having a difficult time at his “upgraded” program), Harris finally became a college wide receiver. Harris caught 19 passes for 448 yards and his 23.6 yards-per-catch average is more than four yards better than the leading “qualified” receiver in the AAC that year.
Then in 2020, with former teammate Gabe Davis now putting on a show with the Buffalo Bills, Harris saw his opportunities increase and now as a “qualified” receiver, he was fourth in the AAC in YPC: 30 catches, 539 yards, 18 yards-per-catch. He also caught eight touchdowns, tied for third-most in the conference.
In a typical season, UCF would have played in three more games and his numbers would almost certainly be even better. Yes, Harris might have been playing in a high-powered, throw-it-always Huepel-coached offense that breeds big numbers in the receiving game, but in the case of this particular prospect it’s not what I find interesting.
What I find interesting about Harris’s numbers should be obvious by now.
HE HAD ONLY PLAYED ONE SEASON OF FOOTBALL PRIOR TO 2019 AND IT WASN’T AS A RECEIVER WHEN HE DID - YEARS EARLIER - BECAUSE HE COULDN’T CATCH A BALL AT THE TIME.
Alright yeah we are gonna have to keep an eye on Jacob Harris.— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) June 8, 2021
Harris still wasn’t getting that much attention for the NFL draft up until the point that he ran a 4.39 40-yard dash as a 6’5 tight end. At that point, the Rams became only one of 32 NFL teams that showed interest in him. He had even more than a fast 40-time, as we wrote at the time when LA drafted him:
There are not many tight ends who are as thin as the 6’5, 219 lb Harris, but there also aren’t many who can run a 4.39 40-yard dash. Who knew that the biggest smokescreen of the 2021 draft process was Les Snead saying that the Rams don’t care about 40 times.
So far LA has drafted four of the best athletes in the class: Tutu Atwell, Robert Rochell, Bobby Brown III, and now Harris.
Harris also had a 40.5” vertical, an 11’1 broad jump, and the fastest three-cone time of the year among all wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs in the class: 6.54.
Harris saw his buddy Gabe Davis get drafted by the Bills in the fourth round in 2020, and he instantly became Buffalo’s “steal” of the year. Davis caught 35 passes for 599 yards, a 17.1 YPC average with seven touchdowns. Harris believes he can be just as surprising for LA because he possesses the same mentality:
“Gabe, especially his mentality, is the best of the best,” Harris said. “He’s a guy that’s able to come in every day and have that same mentality, same work ethic, and that’s been what I’ve been trying to do, and regardless of how I’m feeling, just trying to go out there.”
Being an unlikely football hero would not be something new to Harris, but certainly a player like Harris having an impact on the NFL right away would be new to us. The plan with Hopkins in 2020 was to give him an entire year to learn the position prior to replacing Gerald Everett as the number two tight end, and not only was Hopkins a college tight end for four years, but he grew up in an NFL family so he’s been around it for his entire life.
Harris enters in an entirely different frame of mind — and maybe that’s as much of a secret weapon as anything else.