Carlos Harris settled under the punt Saturday at Apogee Stadium like he had so many others over the years.
What happened on that play and over the rest of the day probably says as much about the freshman receiver and his future at North Texas as what has transpired all year.
Harris stuck his hand up to call for a fair catch. The nearby official — and just about everyone else there — saw that signal. Gabe Loper didn’t.
The South Alabama defensive back was running at Harris with a full head of steam and timed it perfectly, leveling Harris right as he caught the ball.
“I didn’t see him at all because I was focusing on the ball,” Harris said. “I’ve never been hit like that before. I wasn’t really upset by it. I was just shocked.”
What wasn’t a shock to Harris’ coaches and teammates was the way he responded after drawing a penalty for kick catch interference — a 15-yard personal foul — on arguably the biggest hit of the year at Apogee.
The former Frisco standout hauled in a 12-yard pass from quarterback Derek Thompson on the first play of UNT’s next possession and went right back in with the punt team.
The 5-8, 173-pound speedster stuck his hand up again and successfully caught another punt the next chance he got, with USA players bearing down on him.
“When your eyes are up and somebody comes in and whacks you, that might shake you up a little bit when you go out on that next play or try to catch the next punt,” UNT head coach Dan McCarney said. “His mental focus and ability to adapt were fantastic.
“He’s getting better and better. You can see signs of why we were so excited when we signed him in February.”
Back then, Harris was a player who UNT’s coaches thought would develop over time.
The Mean Green had its top three wide receivers returning, including Brelan Chancellor. Harris was considered a likely replacement for arguably UNT’s top all-around playmaker, one who served as the Mean Green’s kickoff and punt returner in addition playing a key role at receiver.
“I figured I would have a little role on special teams, but didn’t think I would be playing as much as I am now, because of the depth we had at wide receiver,” Harris said.
What Harris didn’t see coming were the circumstances that forced UNT to move up the timeline it had laid out for his integration into the Mean Green’s plans.
Former walk-on Ivan Delgado has built on a solid junior season and leads UNT in catches (34) and receiving yards (474), but he missed a game due to suspension. Chris Bynes has experienced what McCarney has described as a disappointing senior season.
What made the situation even worse for UNT was seeing Chancellor go down with a broken collarbone early in the first quarter of a loss to Middle Tennessee on Oct. 27.
That injury ended any idea of bringing Harris along slowly.
He was no longer a backup plan as a slot receiver and a kick/punt returner. He was the plan.
Harris knew it and so did his teammates.
“Carlos has been thrown to the wolves a little bit,” Thompson said. “With Brelan gone, he had to grow up quickly. I have been on him the last couple of weeks and am trying to make sure he’s on the same page with the rest of us. He’s done a really good job of responding and making plays that have helped this football team.”
Harris caught four passes for 52 yards in a loss to Arkansas State the week after UNT lost Chancellor for the year.
UNT’s coaches and players had no idea if Harris would be a factor after Loper leveled him.
“I’m not sure what happened, but that dude got a free shot at him and made it count,” Thompson said.
The first thing UNT’s coaches asked Harris when he got to the sideline was if he was OK. Harris said he was fine.
“The coaches said not to get shaken up by it and keep fielding punts as well as I could with the way the wind was factoring in,” Harris said. “I was good. I wouldn’t advise anyone to get hit like that, but I was OK going back out there.”
Seeing Harris back on the field was no surprise to his teammates, who have been impressed by his toughness.
“We were really impressed with Carlos and proud of him for taking a hit and continuing to stand there and field the ball,” UNT linebacker Zach Orr said. “He’s been doing that since he got here in August. He has been showing his toughness. He’s going to be a big part of this program. You can see flashes of it now. He’s one of those players who can take it the distance no matter where he gets the ball.”
Harris didn’t have a big day when it came to return yardage against USA. His only return went down as a 2-yard loss, but he did field all four of the punts he had a chance to catch after being leveled by Loper on a day the wind was gusting inside Apogee Stadium.
“One of the toughest things to do in football is catch a punt when there is no wind and no conditions, much less when there is a 20- to 35-mile-an-hour wind blowing all over the place and you don’t know where the ball is going when it comes off the punter’s foot,” McCarney said. “He did a phenomenal job.”
Harris finished with team highs in receptions (three) and receiving yards (35) and carried the ball once for 10 yards in addition to fielding punts against the Jaguars.
His 18-yard catch from Thompson on third-and-9 from the USA 32-yard line set up a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Drew Miller that tied the game at 14.
Harris thought those were the types of plays he would be able to make for UNT at some point in his career. He just never anticipated his opportunity would come so soon.
“The more playing time you get, the more your confidence builds,” Harris said. “When you get a chance to get out there and relax, it helps you play your game.”
Harris said he feels like nothing can rattle him now, not after taking a wicked lick from Loper.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is email@example.com .