It’s impossible to know what, exactly, running back Nico Steriti was thinking when he pulled back and let the ball fly.
Throughout the season, wide receiver R.J. Harris was often quarterback Sean Goldrich’s security blanket. He leaned on him for a bail out whenever the University of New Hampshire offense neared bankruptcy.
But what Steriti was asking for is something else.
After taking an end around during the second quarter of an FCS playoff game against Fordham, Steriti had two pass rushers closing in on him as he worked toward the right sideline. With no other options and perhaps motivated by visions of Harris’ other miracles, he chucked the ball down the field in the vicinity of three defensive backs.
It hung and wobbled through the air, falling slow enough for more defensive help to close in. It looked like a punt begging to be returned by the defense. But Harris was ready to cut a check to save his offense. Somehow, he managed to adjust, wedge himself between the pack of defenders and pull the ball in for a big gain.
In many ways, this play summed Harris’ tenure at New Hampshire. He regularly turned doom into booms. The Saints took notice, signed the receiver to a free-agent contract after the draft and are now hoping he can reach greater heights working in an offense that will also work to help him.
Though his tenure is only weeks old, the 6-foot Harris has already caught the eye of the coaching staff and made a positive impression during last weekend’s rookie minicamp.
“He’s stood out in this camp, he has really quick hips, he is explosive,” coach Sean Payton said. “He’s got really good speed, a little thin, but he handles the bump and run pretty well. I would say he’s been a guy that we’ve noticed a little bit. There are some snaps where you think who is that, go back, and it’s him.”
There was no mistaking Harris on the field last season. No. 15 stood out on every play, mostly because he was targeted by Goldrich even when there was nothing to target. Some of his 1,551 receiving yards were partly the result of the offensive system, but a good chunk were the result of his ability after the catch and his penchant for getting open down the field.
One could argue that his numbers would have been more robust with the help of a more accurate quarterback who possessed a better understanding of how to throw receivers open and lead them away from contract.
Harris said he believed his talents and gaudy numbers would get him selected as a late-round draft pick. His name was never called. Disappointment set in, but it quickly subsided when several teams offered him a contract after the draft.
After weighing his options with his agent, a process that included weighing the fit and difficulty of cracking a 53-man roster, he decided New Orleans was his best fit.
“I had a few free-agent contracts offered my way,” Harris said. “But like I said, I talked to my agent, we felt the Saints have the best opportunity for me.”
It’s a good time to be an undrafted receiver with the audacity to dream of cracking the Saints roster. After trading Kenny Stills to the Miami Dolphins earlier this offseason, there are plenty of opportunities begging for someone to step up and claim them.
The veteran Marques Colston and second-year receiver Brandin Cooks reside at the top of the depth chart. Everything from there remains undefined. Last year’s undrafted rookies, Seantavius Jones and Brandon Coleman as well as Nick Toon appear to have the inside edge for a few other jobs, though they are far from locks.
One thing Harris might have working in his favor is that he will be looking to earn a job as a “Z” receiver, against the likes of Cooks, Joe Morgan, Jalen Saunders and Willie Snead. Relative to the other receiver spot in the base offense, the level of resistance is lower.
Saints tight end Harold Spears, an undrafted free agent who played alongside Harris at New Hampshire, said his college teammate shouldn’t be doubted.
“His stats speak for themselves,” Spears said. “He’s great, catches everything, good route runner. He can do everything. He’s great all around.”
The Saints have a history of unearthing unknown gems on the open market. At this early juncture, it’s hard to know if Harris is ready to carry the torch for that group. He’s never played against this level of competition and has long odds to overcome if he hopes to avoid becoming a forgotten footnote on this draft class.
“I just want to go out there and give it my all to help the team get to the Super Bowl and win it,” Harris said. “That’s just me. Personally, I’m going to give 100 percent day in and day out and do whatever it takes.”
His aspirations are big. When asked who he models his game after, the first two names he provided were those of Colston, a former seventh-round pick who emerged as one of the league’s better receivers, and Detroit’s Calvin Johnson.
Realizing that he’s nearly half of a foot shorter than both those players and his style of play is entirely different, he settled on Buffalo’s Robert Woods and Jacksonville’s Marquise Lee as more reasonable comparables.
Perhaps it said something that Harris would rather dream big than immediately accept reality.