In July, Douglass senior Paul Harris orally committed to play football at the University of Tennessee, surprising even his mother by picking the Volunteers out of a group of more than two dozen offers, including one from his dream school, the University of Southern California.
Since then, the steady stream of letters and messages from top-tier programs around the country has only continued, increasing further with news last week of Tennessee Coach Derek Dooley’s firing. Harris, who took classes this summer so he could enroll in college early, said Tuesday he still plans to begin classes at the Southeastern Conference school in January.
Harris, 18, has learned to take the attention in stride. The 6-foot-4, 200-pound wide receiver had played few varsity reps before coming to Douglass from DeMatha last fall, and he only morphed into a top prospect thanks to his work at the Upper Marlboro public school. Now he’s led the Eagles back to the state playoffs for the second straight season, beginning with Friday’s Maryland 2A semifinal against Edmondson-Westside in Baltimore.
“It’s just crazy — I’m like ‘Don’t these guys know I’m going to college in a month?’ ” said Harris, rated a four-star recruit by Rivals.com. “But it just goes to show that a lot of people really respect what I do, and they think they can help mold [my game]. That’s a blessing now — a sign from God that everybody knows my talent.”
With Harris, the challenge was unlocking the potential that had long intrigued area coaches. After helping the Marlboro Mustangs to an undefeated season in his eighth grade year, the local private schools recruited him heavily.
Harris and his mother, Tiasha Carter, made at least 10 different visits before settling on DeMatha. With the Stags, the wide receiver said he struggled to grasp the playbook early on and ultimately had his sophomore season derailed by a shoulder injury.
When Coach Bill McGregor resigned in March 2011 leaving the program briefly in flux, Harris was ready for a change, too. Though he had grown up mostly attending private Catholic schools, he enrolled at Douglass, where his mother has worked as a special education teacher for eight years.
“You watch Paul for five minutes, and you know he’s going to be outstanding,” McGregor said. “He has all the intangibles you look for that you can’t teach. . . . He just had to wait his turn a little bit.”
Carter, who gave birth to Harris during her junior year at Woodbridge High School, knew her son would fit in easily at Douglass because of his familiarity with the school, but she met with each of his teachers early on to make sure he didn’t get a free pass in the classroom because she was in the building.
On the football field, Harris joined the Eagles with little national recruiting buzz and his own doubts about how he would fit into Coach J.C. Pinkney’s run-first, triple-option offense.
Adjusting to his first extensive game action took time, but Harris surged late in the season with 24 catches for 492 yards and six touchdowns combined in the team’s last five games. Douglass finished its season with its first state title game appearance since 1975, falling to Middletown, 43-6.
“I’d been trying to get him to have that killer-type instinct,” Pinkney said. “Man, use that size, use all that ability to your advantage. All the sudden, he wasn’t saving anything. He was going all out.”
With game tape to back up his physical attributes, Harris began accumulating scholarship offers last winter, landing his coveted offer from USC in late February. He had become enamored with the Pacific-12 school watching Reggie Bush play for the Trojans, and Carter believed it was such a sure thing she began making plans to move to the West Coast to be closer to her oldest son.
But Harris took his time through the process and made his plan to graduate early before picking a school. During the summer he kept a strict schedule with a government class at Friendly in the morning and training sessions at Douglass in the afternoon before going to Suitland for an English course at night. Because he doesn’t have a driver’s license, Carter acted as her son’s chauffeur every step of the way.
“I missed grinding with my team — that was the biggest thing,” said Harris, who has 29 catches for 603 yards with eight total touchdowns this season. “I couldn’t be with them hardly at all, but I wanted them to know that I was working hard, too.”
Ultimately, Harris committed to Tennessee based on his close relationship with Darin Hinshaw, the team’s wide receivers coach.
Despite the continued interest from other programs, including a new offer from Miami last month, Harris said he won’t alter his plans as long as Hinshaw is retained on the incoming staff. Barring a change, he plans to fly to Tennessee on Jan. 2 and start classes the next week, beginning work toward a degree in sport management with a minor in religious history.
Then in late May, Harris will come back and walk in a high school graduation ceremony in front of the people that helped turn his dream of a scholarship into a reality.
“It was just a matter of [him] buying into our program and our colors and everything else,” Pinkney said. “He was from another school. Now he’s a Douglass kid.”