ASU's N'Keal Harry looking to build upon his All-American debutPosted: Updated:
The best players can make something special out of nothing. In the blink of an eye, “Oh no!” turns into “Oh yes!”
N’Keal Harry did just that when he turned certain disaster into arguably the most memorable play of Arizona State’s 2016 season last November.
In the second quarter of ASU’s battle against No. 15 Utah, the Sun Devils dialed up a trick play. Quarterback Manny Wilkins threw a backwards pass to Harry, who was then supposed to throw the ball to Kalen Ballage. However, the normally sure-handed true freshman made a crucial error.
“After I dropped the ball, I was like ‘Oh my gosh,’” Harry said.
Once he got control of the ball, he saw Ballage was covered and Ute defenders were gunning for him. It was then his rare set of skills took over.
“After that, I didn't think much of it,” said Harry. “It was just reactions from that point.”
Reactions, yes. But also cutbacks on a dime. Some jukes. Then finally the jets as he raced for a touchdown that covered far more than the 31 yards recorded in the box score.
It was one of several highlight-reel plays the then-true freshman and Chandler High School product made during his debut season as a Sun Devil. Coming to ASU as a 5-star recruit and the No. 1 rated prep wide receiver in the country, the expectations were sky high, but they were ones that Harry was eager to embrace.
“I expected the speed to be a little bit faster than what I was used to,” Harry said. “Everything ended up working out pretty well. I ended up getting adjusting to it during the offseason and summer camp, so that helped a little bit. It was just applying what I was practicing into the game. I think I did a pretty good job.”
It’s safe to say that ASU coaches and fans would agree.
Utilizing his unique blend of size and speed, Harry led the team and set a school freshman record with 58 receptions, amassing 659 yards and five touchdowns receiving while adding 69 yards and another pair of scores rushing. After the year, he was named to multiple freshman All-American teams and earned an honorable mention spot on the All-Pac-12 team.
By most any measure, it was a successful debut year, yet Harry only gives himself a “B-” grade for the year. He doesn’t give himself a pass for facing the unavoidable adjustment period and learning curve faced by all freshmen.
"There were moments where I showed my athleticism and what I could do, but there were also moments where I was thinking like a freshman, which can't happen at all, regardless if I was a freshman or not,” Harry said. “I should always be thinking like a veteran and one step ahead of everything. I was a little disappointed with some games and some of my performances. I can use it to really help myself and my game next year."
A unexpected major challenge for Harry and the rest of the team was the team’s quarterback situation. Injuries hammered the group, with three different players making starts throughout the year. In particular, the injuries to starter Manny Wilkins impacted his availability in practice, hampering the rapport building between him and his receivers.
“It was a little bit difficult,” Harry admitted. "It’s real hard to change who’s leading your team week after week. At the same time, as a receiving corps, while all of that was going on we would talk to each other and let each other know that regardless of who is the quarterback, any ball in our general area we should catch.”
On the field, Harry feels that his hands and route running were among what he did best in 2016, but he also learned that his technique and the less flashy—but still vital—aspects of the position need work.
“Going from high school to college, you have to be really technical. You can’t just get by on athleticism anymore,” said Harry. “But the things I need to work on were my blocking. Blocking in high school was fairly easy for me, but in college it's been a little bit difficult. The guys are so much more athletic, and the corners are so much bigger. Stuff like that is what I need to improve, and that's what I'm going to focus on in the offseason."
Beyond the faster pace and tougher competition on the field, Harry also had to adjust to life as a student-athlete off of it, and it wasn’t always easy.
“Off the field, there was a lot of responsibility that I have to account for that I wasn’t used to having, such as being on time at everything, showing up to everything,” Harry said. “Stuff like that was different, and it really helped me, because that is the stuff that is really going to help me with life after football.”
Despite his individual success, Harry's team faltered down the stretch, as ASU ended the year on a six-game losing streak following a 5-1 start. While disheartening, Harry feels the end of the season has given the team motivation to reverse the trend in 2017.
“We just want to prove that we can compete with some of the best teams in the nation,” Harry said. “From the first couple of games, that was apparent, but from there, injuries happened and that slowed us down. Stuff like that is what we’re going to use to motivate us and help us have a better season next year.”
As he transitions into his second year, Harry and the other Sun Devil wide receivers are adapting to a new position coach. After just one season in Tempe, Jay Norvell left to become the head coach at Nevada, and ASU soon hired Rob Likens away from Kansas to take over.
“It was privilege to work with Coach Norvell,” said Harry. “I'm really happy for him, and I'm really happy for him to be a head coach, because that’s something he’s wanted to do his whole career. Coach Likens, I don’t know him too well. I've talked to him a few times. I’m just working on forming my relationship with him right now. He’s been really cool so far. I just have to continue to build my relationship with him and make sure we’re on the same page at all times.”
Likens inherits a group that loses its senior leader in Tim White, but includes Harry and a host of talented—and inexperienced—players. Despite being the lone proven commodity, Harry feels that the group, ranging from junior Jalen Harvey and sophomore Kyle Williams to newly-eligible transfers Ryan Newsome and John Humphrey. is loaded with potential.
“We have a really strong group, but a lot of them haven’t gotten to show it yet,” Harry said. “The nation is going to take notice of our whole wide receiver group this year. We have a lot of guys that have traits that go well with each other. We have a lot of speed guys. We have guys that are big. Stuff like that is going to help mesh the whole team together. As a receiving corps, it is going to make us that much better.”
For his part, Harry is also looking to change his on-field mentality to take greater advantage of his size. A listed 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Harry possesses a stark advantage among most Pac-12 defensive backs, and he intends to use it.
"Expect me to be a lot more aggressive," Harry said. "I don't want to get tackled by one dude in the open field or anything like that. With the body build that I have, it should always take more than one dude to take me down. I'm going to be a lot more focused every game coming out. I know what to expect, so it's going to be a lot better year for me. I think I'm going to be able to have a much better season than I did last year."
After consecutive sub-.500 seasons, the pressure is on Sun Devil football to turn things around and once again contend in the Pac-12 South. While several major question marks loom over the program, Harry says that fans should expect to see better things from ASU this fall.
“We are really motivated to show everybody what we’re going to do this year," Harry said. "We have a lot of good talent coming in. We have a lot of people on our team that really haven’t gotten to show what they’re made of and what they can do on the field. It’s a lot of new talent coming that, once the games start, the fans are going to see the type of players we have and the depth we have as a whole”
Harry's value to the program as a top-flight wide receiver is unquestioned, but that may prove to be just one of his major contributions.
Since taking over the program in late 2011, head coach Todd Graham has made keeping Arizona's elite high school talent home a priority. Progress has been made, with several highly-regarded local players opting to #StayTrue2ASU and become Sun Devils. Last year's class proved the highwater mark to that point, as it included Harry—the first 5-star recruit signed by Graham at ASU—as well as Chandler teammate and 4-star defensive back Chase Lucas.
“It feels really good for me, and I know it feels really good for Chase," Harry said. "It feels like that us staying home, doing what we thought was right, and it actually paying off is hopefully making the local guys think ‘Maybe I need to be in-state. Maybe I need to stay close to home.’ I think a lot of people across the nation are asleep on the talent that we have in Arizona. Guys like Christian (Kirk, formerly of Scottsdale Saguaro and now at Texas A&M), guys before him, guys that left, those were top talents that came out of Arizona. If they would have just stayed in Arizona, ASU would be a ridiculous team. Seeing stuff like that makes me feel good. It makes me feeling like I did the right thing by staying in state.”
The success of players like Harry and continued effort of the coaching staff, has helped to turn around ASU's local image. Where once the program largely ignored local players in favor of California-based prospects, today it has become an attractive destination for Arizona's elite. With Signing Day a week away, ASU already has commitments from seven local players and is in the hunt for a few more.
“I think the rep we have with local kids is really starting to build," Harry said. "Over the past few years when people were leaving, they were thinking to themselves ‘Why is every leaving? Is something wrong with ASU? There has to be something else going on.’ I think me being an example of staying home and having success in my freshmen year is really getting to them and making them think ‘Maybe I should stay home.’ Regardless of what any coach across the country tells you, it’s a lot easier, it’s a lot better, and it’s a lot easier to adjust by staying in your home state.”
Just one year in, Harry has not only become a face of the program, but also a hometown hero in the making. He's helping to make ASU the destination for the best players the state has to offer, and that holds tremendous value to the program, beyond the number of points he puts on the scoreboard.
Yet as he catches passes and scores touchdowns in the years ahead, doing so in front of his friends and family is something upon which you can't put a price.
“It's a great feeling. A lot of the people up in those stands were people watching me play since I was a little kid," Harry said. "It really helps having all of their support, and having my grandma being able to come watch me play has been something that has really motivated me to play the way that I was playing.
"Staying home was one of the best decisions that I could have ever made.”