Heading into the Fall Camp of 2007, the Texas Longhorns were loaded at wide receiver, featuring the dominating outside presence of Limas Sweed, an un-coverable-in-practice Jordan Shipley and two year starter Billy Pittman.
All three players were injured that summer. Sweed would end up missing most of the season with another early injury, Pittman never really got it back together and Jordan Shipley played sporadically and began to cement his relationship with the training staff.
Enter little known senior Nate Jones - a WR who had been little more than a role player in his previous years at Texas who won the starting job outside and led the Longhorns in receptions (70), yardage (795) and tied for receiving touchdowns (5) while serving as a reliable bedrock in a devastated receiving corps. Jones had mediocre speed, good size, blocked well and had reliable hands and he maximized every bit of his ability in a breakout, sorely -needed senior campaign. He became a Longhorn fan favorite for stepping up when little was expected of him.
We shouldn't be that surprised.
The long fabled history of the Gaskamp Award suggests that the late breakout senior is pretty much a scientific inevitability and in 2014, a motivated and readjusted 5th year senior named John Harris - in the wake of the dismissals of Kendall Sanders and Montrel Meander from the Texas program - is looking like the most likely offensive candidate to fulfill that destiny.
John Harris has been our most steady performer and biggest performer of our whole entire training camp. He is a changed person who's been really good for us.
A "changed person" sounds a lot different than "improved player." And its implications are life-lasting.
Recall that the 6-2, 215 pound Harris had been moved to the Texas TE graveyard to clear up room in the WR depth chart, gained bad weight, exhibited the "let's just get by" attitude that characterized much of the end of the previous regime and seemed likely to finish his career buried and forgotten. His initial reaction to the new coaches - their constant oversight, their demands, the demanding new workload - was resentment. His snaps in the Spring game - and the timing of those snaps - revealed exactly what that got him. He was playing with the walk-ons. And not Ty Templin and Dylan Haines.
But something in Harris changed.
I can tell a lot of difference in myself. I've been getting pushed by the coaches a lot more. I'm in a lot better shape and dealing with the heat a lot better. I'm a lot better mentally and physically, so I guess you could say I'm a changed person.
What sparked the change? A desire to fulfill his potential kindled by a new staff? The realization that this was his final campaign? A sense that he had a clean slate with a new staff with which he might rewrite the end of his Longhorn career? Did he realize that this was a group of coaches who had no personal bone to pick, but simply wanted his buy-in? Did he take a long look in the mirror and decide to do it for himself?
Whatever the reason, the end result was a focused John Harris who attacked the weight room, caught thousands of balls and got himself into his best form as a Longhorn.
Being in a lot better shape, it feels a lot better to move around out there. Being able to breathe and last longer in plays is where I think I've taken the most and biggest stepping strides in my game.
Breathing is helpful. I'm not sure how in a major college program a seasoned skill player can get out-of-shape, but oversight and self-motivation seems to be the first part of the answer. The great thing about a genetically gifted 22 year old body is that it can remake itself in four months. Harris did just that.
Harris - shockingly - particularly compared to his previous status, is now widely regarded as a team leader. His availability in media days is no accident. He's a living example of the culture change in Austin. A demonstration that its precepts are rooted in fairness and forgiveness as much as hard work and exacting standards; it's not about being indiscriminant hardasses and bullying buy-in. That's the part the talking head idiots and football chattering classes just aren't getting.
It means a lot, especially whenever you can be trusted by these coaches and by your teammates. I think that's a big deal for anybody. Everybody wants to be trusted, and it's a good feeling to know that these guys do trust me and do have a lot of faith in me.
Now that he has earned staff and teammate trust, how does he want to end his career?
All of us fifth-year guys, we want to finish this right. We came in here the year after the national championship, and to come in the next year and go 5-7 was a little bit tough. There might have been a little complacency. That's hard for us. We haven't gone to a really big BCS bowl game since we've been here, so to finish this year right and try to help Texas get back to a 10-win record or 11-win record would be great for us. We just want to help Texas get back to where it needs to be, and we want to start that with Coach Strong.
Works for me. Hook 'em.