When the question arrived, as inevitable as it was, Brandon Harris smiled and exhaled. He looked relieved, happy, like someone thankful to be here, instead of there.
Do you think you were not utilized properly at LSU?
It was the sort of inquiry that allowed Harris a sounding board about his three frustrating years at LSU, where he left behind a legion of doubters who weren’t necessarily too sad to see him leave for North Carolina. The question, though, didn’t take Harris back in time. It seemed to bring him more into the present.
“I’m glad to be here, man,” he said, before repeating himself. “I’m glad to be here.”
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A little more than three years ago Harris arrived at LSU as the Tigers’ quarterback of the future, a native Louisianian from Bossier City. He was part of one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, one that also included Leonard Fournette, the running back, and a class destined, undoubtedly, for great things.
By last spring, Harris had experienced enough to know that he wanted out. The head coach who brought him to LSU, Les Miles, had been fired. Perhaps not coincidentally, Harris had been through three difficult seasons on the field, ones that have left him feeling like he needs to prove people wrong.
He arrived in Chapel Hill in late May, the town mostly quiet without the bustle of the regular school year. He tried to immerse himself in a new playbook, and spent time alone in a dark room watching the Tar Heels on film, a coach’s voice-over offering instruction that Harris could rewind and play back over and over.
Each day brought Harris farther from his past at LSU, and closer to his future at UNC. He’s here only because things didn’t go as planned there, though on Monday, in his first session with reporters since arriving at LSU, Harris spoke fondly of his time in Baton Rouge.
“I graduated with a degree from LSU in three years, which was incredible,” he said. “... I have nothing but respect for the program and the people that are over there. I’m thankful that coach Miles gave me an opportunity to lead my in-state school. But I’ve moved on. I’m glad to be here at North Carolina.”
When he was a high school All-American, Harris had his pick of schools. He could have gone anywhere, choosing to remain in-state and play for Miles (“I love the dude to death,” Harris said on Monday. “If he was recruiting me again today, I’d probably commit to him again.”)
When Harris repeated the process of picking a school last spring, though, there was more urgency, more pressure, as he put it, “to get it right.” He didn’t have three, or four, or five years, like he thought he did as a high school senior picking LSU. He had one – his final one as a college player.
The decision came down to Texas and UNC, Harris said. Tom Herman, the Longhorns’ hot-shot new head coach, recruited Harris when Herman was the offensive coordinator at Ohio State during its 2014 national championship season. Herman and Harris had a relationship, and some history.
UNC, though, had something unique in its favor: a recent run of quarterback success. The Tar Heels won the ACC’s Coastal Division in 2015 thanks in no small part to Marquise Williams, the quarterback who earned a reputation for his toughness and versatility after an inauspicious start to his years at UNC.
Then, last season, Mitch Trubisky went from a relative unknown (outside of Chapel Hill) starting his first college game to the most coveted quarterback prospect in the NFL draft. Harris, laboring through a long season of his own, took note.
He appreciated, especially, that two quarterbacks with varying skills excelled the past two seasons in Larry Fedora’s version of the up-tempo, spread offense. Harris wondered what he might be able to do in such a system, with that kind of proven record of success for quarterbacks, especially.
“I knew there was an opportunity here to play in the type of offense, I think, that fits my skill set,” Harris said. “And I knew Trubisky, with the opportunity for Trubisky to go to the NFL, I communicated with my high school coach about the availability of what might be out there, and that’s how it went down.”
Harris arrived with no guarantees. He’s expecting to start, hoping to start, but nothing has been promised. Fedora, approaching his sixth season at UNC, has been coy, as usual, when discussing where his quarterbacks stand in what he has described as a four-way competition.
Harris, who didn’t play in LSU’s final seven games last year after an inconsistent 2015 season, is the most experienced of those four but is still learning UNC’s offense. Nathan Elliott, who backed up Trubisky a season ago, is UNC’s only returning quarterback who has played in a college game.
Elliott also happens to be Harris’ roommate at the team hotel where the Tar Heels stay throughout the preseason. They said nice things about each other on Monday, in advance of a scrimmage on Tuesday that will offer the first real opportunity for one of the quarterbacks to earn some separation.
The two redshirt freshmen, Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd, are also part of the competition. Fedora on Monday offered the usual platitudes about all of them, but if he’d felt strongly about what he had returning at quarterback, he wouldn’t have made Harris the off-season priority that he became.
So far, Fedora said, Harris has done “a good job” early in the preseason. Harris began practice with a firm enough grasp on the playbook – that had been one of Fedora’s primary concerns – and Harris’ history of questionable accuracy seems, for now, to be of minor concern.
“The only time he ever gets into a problem is when his feet aren’t right,” Fedora said of Harris, who completed 53.8 percent of his passes at LSU. “When his feet aren’t right, I mean – that’s hard for any quarterback.
“There aren’t many of them that when their feet aren’t right and they’re not balanced that can make the throws and be accurate. A lot of those guys are playing at the next level, including the one we had last year.”
So far, Harris said, that has been his greatest challenge: re-learning how to use his feet. UNC’s offense requires much different footwork than what he grew accustomed to at LSU, where he spent most of his time directly behind the center as opposed to in the shotgun formation, as UNC’s offense requires.
That transition has been one of several amid Harris’ new beginning. He’s in a new state, at a new school, unburdened by the old expectations and disappointment. He’s starting over, searching for something he hopes he has found.
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