PULLMAN – He made two streaking runs from his slot receiver position that resulted in 28- and 29-yard touchdowns in the season opener at Oregon State, then sent the Beavers packing when he took an inside handoff up the gut of the defense for a blistering 44-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
He caught a snap out of the wildcat formation at USC, plowing a 5-yard trail into the end zone to briefly stop the bleeding at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
He returned eight kickoffs for 175 yards – an impressive average of 21.9 yards per punt that ranked third in the Pac-12 Conference – and took on a bulk of the duties at punt return.
Travell Harris did all that in only four games and yet, when it’s suggested 2020 was a breakout season for the Washington State wide receiver, “Mr. Versatility” can’t help but balk.
“I feel like I’m just getting started,” Harris said after Tuesday’s spring practice. “It’s only four games and I had a lot to learn, a lot to really understand. I feel like I matured, but most definitely this year is a breakout year. This the year.
“I feel very confident in myself. I’m very confident in my team as well and this is the breakout year, not only for myself but for us. It’s time to shock the world and show the world what the Cougs are about.”
Those debating whether WSU’s 2020 season was worth the hassle would have plenty of supporting evidence, from the constant roster attrition the Cougars faced, to the unstable nature of a schedule that changed from week to week, to the frightening reality that COVID-19 could shut the whole thing down on a moment’s notice.
Those trying to build a counterpoint would have some ammo, too. Without the 2020 season, Harris doesn’t get his feet wet in the run-and-shoot offense, doesn’t emerge as a key weapon for the Cougars and WSU’s coaches don’t enter 2021 with a foundational understanding of the various ways they can use the small, explosive receiver from Florida.
Then again, Pac-12 defensive coordinators who may have Harris at the center of their game plans when preparing for the Cougars this fall probably wouldn’t have known about him, either.
It’s too late now. WSU’s best-kept secret is out.
“I think he’s going to be even better. I think he’s going to be better,” WSU coach Nick Rolovich said Tuesday. “I think the one thing that stands out about Travell – I was thinking about that today – is how durable he is, how trustworthy he is as far as when it’s time to compete, he’s not afraid to be the guy who wants the ball on the big stage and the big moment.”
Now that the Cougars have switched offensive systems, the ball’s coming his way early and often. Harris hasn’t switched positions under Rolovich, but he’s seen an uptick in production in a scheme that’s made him more of a focal point. The Tampa, Florida, native was WSU’s starting H-receiver during the final years of the Mike Leach era, but within an Air Raid system that seldom threw to its “H,” Harris was often the fourth choice behind three receiving positions and the running back.
In 2018, he had just 27 catches – less than two running backs (James Williams and Max Borghi), both Y-receivers (Jamire Calvin and Kyle Sweet), both Z-receivers (Dezmon Patmon and Easop Winston Jr.) and X-receiver Tay Martin. Harris caught 47 passes in 2019, but was still just the team’s sixth-most targeted receiver.
Not only did he see a boost in his receiving numbers last season, catching 7.2 passes per game after averaging 3.6 and 2.1 the years prior, Harris was used in other capacities, similar to when he was a receiver/running back hybrid at Tampa’s Jesuit High.
“I think Travell, we go back to how we used John Ursua at Hawaii,” Rolovich said. “I think we did find some ways to get him different looks and kind of threaten the defense from different spots and in different ways.”
Ursua’s footprints aren’t bad ones to follow. The 5-foot-9, 182-pound slot was a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist and scoring machine at Hawaii who led the country with 16 receiving touchdowns in 2016 and totaled 2,662 yards in just 33 games.
He’d occasionally moonlight as a running back, totaling six carries and two touchdowns in 33 games with the Rainbow Warriors.
The partnership between Harris and Rolovich is still young, but it’s not uncommon for the player and coach to sit in front of a film screen and dissect college and pro wideouts who share Harris’ skill and versatility.
“We sit down and watch a lot of film of various guys that has my playing style, that’s very similar to me,” Harris said.
“Like I said, I label myself as very explosive, dynamic guy and we do study not even just (Ursua), but Steve Smith, a lot of guys that’s in the league. Wes Welker. Like I said, a lot of guys in the league that has my playing style.”
The experiments that were conceived in a film room and tested on a practice field often resulted in six points on Saturday. Harris caught 29 passes for 340 yards and two touchdowns last season and he was the team’s third-leading rusher, carrying the ball five times for 61 yards and two more touchdowns.
The season is still five months away, but Rolovich’s creative juices are already flowing with ways to get Harris and fellow slot Renard Bell more involved in the offense.
“I think one thing, and this maybe came up Saturday, is we’ve got to make sure him and Renard are involved early in the game, because I think good things happen when they do get involved early,” Rolovich said. “Some people may the slots away a little more and we’ve got to get the ball to our outside guys or our running backs, but finding ways not throughout the game so much, but getting them involved in the game early is something I think we look at how to do that.”
Harris figures to be a centerpiece of WSU’s offense in 2021, but Rolovich anticipates the confident, outspoken receiver will be a leader in more ways than one.
“I think his voice carries more weight when he speaks now,” the coach said. “He’s always been an enthusiastic participant of this football team, but it seems to me like he’s on a mission and he’s into team continuity. What can I do better, what can we do better? He’s very engaged in the meetings. He’s a joy to coach, he really is. A lot of these guys are.
“I feel like a better person when I’m around Travell.”
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