Eagles Draft profiles: The ultimate sleeper? One Illinois State DB is out to prove everybody wrong

Davontae Harris
Illinois State defensive back Davontae Harris (10) celebrates with teammates after Illinois State defeated Northwestern 9-7 in an NCAA college football game in Evanston, Ill., Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

The NFL Draft is less than one month away and excitement among fans, analysts and prospects alike is at an all-time high. For many players eagerly awaiting the next chapter in their lives to begin, this time can often be the most important and most daunting they’ve experienced. But for Illinois State product, Davontae Harris, trusting the process is something that comes easy.

While some prospects begin playing Football from an early age or are born into families who live and breathe by the pigskin, Harris fell in love with the game naturally. The defensive back didn’t grow up idolizing any player in particular or with a dream of being drafted, but he saw an opportunity as a sophomore at high school to get on a team in the basketball offseason and the rest was history.

Illinois State defensive back Davontae Harris runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Monday, March 5, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

“I had a really big standout year in my Junior season.” Harris said, looking back on his time at Wichita South High School. “In the city I grew up in, it was really hard to get recruited at the D1 level. Most people that came out that I knew of went down the JUCO route and then went to a D1 level school. It didn’t even hit me until the beginning of my Senior year when coaches were in contact with me and I’d see people in college who I was on the same level as athletic wise.”

But just as the stars were beginning to align, Harris sustained one of the strangest and most agonizing injuries imaginable. A cleat ripped through both his large and small intestine at the beginning of his senior season, punching a huge hole in the road that was heading towards a D1 scholarship.

“That was different for me. It was an unexpected blessing.” Harris said, surprisingly composed. “That shifted my whole mindset towards what made me who I am now. The reason I say that is because at the time I thought my playing of sports in general would be over. All the doctors had never heard of it and nobody I’d spoken to had heard of an injury of that magnitude. To be able to come back that year and run track and do things I had done before made me do those things with more thanks. Those opportunities were once taken away from me and God was able to give back what I thought was permanently taking away from me, I had to make the most of it”.

But even after such a debilitating injury, Harris continued down the path he had previously began to walk down…and one university accompanied him down that path, Illinois State. The university kept pursuing Harris, taking a chance on the defensive back after seeing his athletic potential. For the future All-Missouri Valley Football Conference First-Team selection, that meant everything.

“It made me fall in love with the university even more.” He said. “A guy from Wichita form Kansas who they didn’t know too much about, they still took a chance on me and gave me a full scholarship. It made me appreciate them and appreciate my opportunity even more.”

The transition from the high school game to the college game can be difficult for even the most esteemed prospect. But Harris wasn’t a decorated recruit and didn’t have an extensive football background. As opposed to jumping straight into hot water, the corner optionally redshirted with patience and process in mind.

“I had to learn the game for what it was. In High School, I played my game using my natural ability but at the college level it was about your knowledge of the game.” Harris explained. “That was the reason why I redshirted. I had to put myself in a position where I understood the game and I could play at the speed they needed me to play.”

For a player to optionally take that step back and see the bigger picture is a rare trait, but it’s something that transposes into both the person we see today and the player. Confident in his own ability and as understanding as they come, Harris possesses an inner serenity that doesn’t just help slow down the game, but also everything else around him. With that in mind, it’s safe to say he doesn’t lack drive either.

“It was one of those things where I went in with a chip on my shoulder from a learning standpoint because I knew I was behind the curve. I had to elevate my game in a way other people didn’t. I had to be more patient and utilize that redshirt year as a time to grow into a better player and a person, which molded me into the leader I became.”

His last two seasons for the Redbirds would turn many heads. Starting 11 of 12 games at cornerback in his final season, he ranked #1 in the MVC for passes defensed (13 pass breakups and 2 picks), averaging 1.36 per game. The ballhawk tendencies go hand-in-hand with his 6’0, 205 lbs frame, but with 59 tackles and 5.5 for a loss, Harris also brings an exceptional level of versatility. Harris described himself as wanting to be an ‘impact player’, regardless of the opposition he faced. The numbers back that up and then some.

Just like his time in High School, it wasn’t until late on in his career that it dawned on Davontae that he could make it to the NFL level. Agents began trying to acquire his talent toward the end of his time at Illinois State and his DB coach told him that his form was draftable. It would almost come as a shock then that a Senior Bowl invite evaded Harris.

“For a really long time I was hoping and praying I’d get the Senior Bowl opportunity because I felt that was the highest level of a senior game, where I would get the most exposure and teams could evaluate me playing at that level.” Harris said. “I took it for what it was and my perception of it was going to the East-West shrine instead was my process. Everyone’s process is different and as long as you take care of your opportunities, you’ll be successful regardless.”

Trusting the process is something that will sit very well with Philadelphia fans, but if there’s just one thing slightly more ‘Philly’ than a process worth trusting, it’s an underdog. Harris ticks that box as well.

While he didn’t receive a Senior Bowl invite, he was invited to the NFL Combine. But he went into Indianapolis with a chip on his shoulder and it wasn’t because of the Senior Bowl snub. A write-up prior to the event had him listed as a ‘very average athlete’. Something that clearly didn’t sit well with a player who prided himself on his athleticism and versatility. Harris took a screenshot of that scout report and made it his phone wallpaper. Before every drill, every day, every workout, he would glance at that quote and remind himself that he was everything that scout report said he wasn’t.

Harris blitzed the NFL combine.

A 4.43 40-yard dash turned heads, while turning in 22 reps at 225 lbs at the bench press certainly raised eyebrows. His 32.5 inch vertical and 6.96 three cone drill put the icing on a cake that was rising in the oven.

 

 

The Philadelphia Eagles, like every NFL team have shown keen interest in Harris, with the value found in the later rounds becoming ever more important. The Eagles have shown heavy interest in a handful of safeties this offseason already and it would hardly be surprising to see them take a chance on Harris. If there’s one thing that Philly loves, it’s versatility…and that’s a quality Harris has in abundance.

“If they went out and told me the only way you could make this team is by kicking or punting, I would go out there and do it and try to be the best at my position.” Harris said. “I’m a DB and can play anywhere on the field. I don’t really mind. A lot of teams are looking at me as a safety or a nickel, but those are positions I’m more than capable of playing.”

One thing really took be my surprise when talking to Davontae, at least for a moment before I realized that it’s simply the person he is. Even now, in the most important time of his life, Harris spends his free time trying to give back to the community that raised him.

“I have workouts every morning at this facility back home and work out from around 11:30-12:30.” Harris told me before opening up on a passionate subject. “Beyond that, my middle school I went to, I go back and set up different ways to go back and speak to kids and give back to the community that I came from, that’s my focus right now. Letting Kids know the position I’m in is very doable for them as well.”

So what separates Harris from everybody else in such a loaded draft class?

“A great person first, someone that’s team oriented who smart and focused on winning.” Harris replied when I asked him what teams would be getting should they draft him. “A kid who’s smart and will play physical, fast and great. Someone who is accountable and you’ll never have off-the-field issues with. Someone who’s focused on the team being successful in all aspects.”

This isn’t just about making a living for Davontae Harris, it never has been. It’s about understanding the process and working on his own timing as opposed to comparing himself to others or letting his hunger override his humility.

 

 

Mandatory Photo Credit: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

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