As he watched film of a scrimmage last month, Huskies coach Chris Petersen noticed something odd: Nick Harris, a true freshman in his first training camp, was playing right guard with Washington’s No. 2 offense.
The Huskies have a relatively seasoned offensive line, and a total of eight linemen entered this season with starting experience. So Petersen was curious why Harris, a 6-foot-1, 270-pound 17-year-old, was already getting that many repetitions as a second-stringer.
“I was almost going to put the clicker down,” Petersen said, “and go, ‘What’s he doing with the twos?’
“And then I watched 10 plays, and I went, ‘Oh, I get why he’s with the twos.’ ”
And he stayed there. UW included Harris on its first depth chart, right behind fifth-year senior Shane Brostek at right guard – an inclusion that surprised just about everyone outside the Huskies’ locker room – and sure enough, Harris made his collegiate debut in the first half of Saturday’s season opener against Rutgers.
Afterward, Petersen used the occasion to playfully chastise the recruiting analysts who failed to assign Harris a proper star-rating. Scout.com, ESPN and 247Sports wound up rating him a 3-star prospect; Rivals.com gave him two stars.
In an 18-player recruiting class that included nine 4-star prospects, Harris seemed perhaps the most unlikely candidate to play right away.
“So much for all the recruiting experts,” Petersen cracked.
The analysts can be forgiven for missing on Harris; he had only two reported offers when he committed to UW in July 2015, from Cal Poly and New Hampshire. Even as a two-year starter at right tackle and center at vaunted JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano, California, Harris was simply overlooked, in part because of his size.
“He wasn’t a guy on a lot of lists, wasn’t a guy at a lot of combines,” said JSerra coach Jim Hartigan. “He came through as kind of a journeyman who developed into a pretty good player.”
Maybe it helped that Washington was already recruiting Harris’ teammate, Luke Wattenberg, who committed to UW a little more than three months before Harris. Wattenberg was an Army All-American left tackle with a consensus 4-star rating and offers from UCLA, USC and Nebraska. (He ultimately trimmed that list to two, choosing UW over Duke.)
Hartigan implored visiting coaches to consider Harris, too.
“I think when people came to look at Luke, we would say, ‘don’t forget about this kid here. I think in some ways, he does some things better than Luke,’” Hartigan said. “Washington listened to us.”
Under the tutelage of JSerra offensive line coach Pat Harlow, the former New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders tackle, Harris developed his versatility. He began his career at center, but he was so athletic that Hartigan moved him to right tackle “because we pull so much.”
He played both positions as a senior last season.
“I thought every year he progressed, got bigger, got stronger, was always good with his feet,” Hartigan said. “The first time he caught our attention was his ability to pass (protect). Not only was he good at that, but the way we pull our tackles (in the run game), we felt like this guy can pull pretty good. He could get his hips around, lower his shoulder, get leverage.”
Harris has succeeded this early, Petersen said, in part because of his JSerra roots – Hartigan is reputed as a hard-nosed coach who places great emphasis on developing technique, and Harlow knows his stuff, too – and because of a fearless tenacity not often possessed by freshmen.
Seventeen years old? Only 270 pounds? In his first month as a college football player?
“He does not care,” Petersen said. “He just goes hard. And if he’s going to make a mistake, he’s going to make it 1,000 percent. … He doesn’t understand all of our schemes just yet, but it doesn’t matter, because he’s going to block somebody, even if it’s the wrong guy, and we can live with that. We’ll clean that up.”
Sophomore left tackle Trey Adams, who last season became the first true freshman offensive linemen ever to play for a Petersen-coached team, said he could tell during “the first couple days” of fall camp that Harris, too, was different.
“Just the way he gets off the ball, the way he attacks guys – he doesn’t hold back,” Adams said. “He’s not soft at all. He’s a good player. He’s fun to watch.”
Harris was one of four true freshmen to play in UW’s opener – receiver Aaron Fuller, linebacker Brandon Wellington and safety Taylor Rapp were the others – and with Idaho visiting on Saturday as a heavy underdog, it figures that Harris will continue to see the field at right guard.
“He’s just a really good kid,” Hartigan said, “who is really is blessed with some God-given athletic talent for an offensive lineman, and I think he’s taking advantage of it.”