September 24, 2011

Pursuit of Harris leads Izzo to the football field

For Gary Harris, the finest way to escape the tiring, chaotic world of college basketball recruiting is by strapping on pads and a helmet and engaging in the full-contact arena of his first love - football.

The most ardent Boilermaker, Spartan and Hoosier basketball fans have been following updates on Harris - one of the highest-ranked uncommitted seniors in the country - throughout the spring, summer and now into the fall.

Fans in Indiana hunt for Gary Harris updates the way stock brokers thirst for updates from Wall Street. In Lansing, the "Gary Harris Update" is a weekly segment on mid-Michigan's highest-rated talk show.

Harris, a fast, crafty, 6-foot-5 wing guard from Hamilton Southeastern High School in Fishers, Ind., is ranked No. 25 by Rivals.com and No. 10 by Dave Telep.

Rarely has Michigan State been involved with an uncommitted player ranked this high, this late in the recruiting process. When the Spartans have signed McDonalds All-America-caliber players during the Tom Izzo era, the commitments usually come prior to the player's senior year in high school. But Harris' situation has been different. He is taking his time to get it right.

Hard-working off the court - efficient, explosive and only occasionally flashy on it - Harris has not jerked the public around when it comes to his highly-covered process of choosing a university. He mentioned early that he was most interested in Midwestern schools. He has stayed consistent with that theme, listing Indiana, Purdue and Michigan State among the early leaders last year. Last month, he announced that he would take official visits to those schools.

He's been honest. He's remained approachable.

Harris continues to say that he doesn't resent the process, or the outlandish attention it generates. His parents advised him to try to enjoy his recruitment, telling him he'll only go through it once, and when it is over, it will be a chapter of his life that can never be re-opened.

Harris has honored the advice of his parents. He says he hasn't let the unending phone calls and conjecture bother him. Still, there are times when he just wants to be Gary Harris Jr., a high school athlete for the Southeastern Royals.

When he wants to escape from the pressure of being one of the most sought-after basketball recruits in the country, facing one of the most difficult decisions of his life, he finds it on the football practice field with some of the best friends he'll ever know.

"It (football) is an escape," Harris said. "It's just me having fun with my teammates, my friends, some friends I've grown up with in my school system. Just us going out and working at it and trying to win as many football games as possible."

Harris, ranked the No. 3 shooting guard in the country by Rivals.com, is a Division I-caliber wide receiver on the football field. As a threat to go deep for the game-breaking play, go high for the tough catch on a possession route, or run after the catch with a short slant or screen pass, Harris has helped Hamilton Southeastern begin the football season with a 3-1 record. Their only loss was a 38-37 decision to Brownsburg two weeks ago.

Ask Harris how many catches he has on the year, and he doesn't know. He's not interested in personal stats.

"I'm just having fun with my teammates, trying to win as many games as we can, get back to the playoffs and go as far as we can go," Harris said.

He is cherishing every week of football practice, and every Friday night under the lights. He's good enough to play football after high school, and all the schools that are recruiting him for basketball have extended the two-sport option to him.

"All the schools have mentioned it (playing both sports), but I don't want to play two sports," he said. "I just want to play basketball."

That's not an easy decision for him.

"I used to be football-first," he said. "I mean football is the first sport I started playing in Tennessee back when I was younger. You played football, tackle football, in the first grade there, so that's what I grew up doing. I always played basketball too, but I grew up liking football more."

His love for football enabled him to form quick friendships back in elementary with his current football teammates, when he moved to the Indianapolis area in the third grade.

"Guys like Aaron Marshall; we have been good friends since fifth grade. And Jametrius Crockham, we have been playing together since fifth grade too. Our quarterback, Jay Jones, I've been playing with him a long time. He's pretty much been my quarterback since the third grade."

Does Harris remember the first touchdown pass he caught from Jones?

"No," Harris said.

But Harris remembers the last. It went for a 74-yard touchdown, last Friday night in a 34-27 victory over Zionsville.

"It was a seam route," Harris said. "I had to run the hash to catch it, and then about another 50 yards after the catch."

Tom Izzo, a former high school wide receiver of note, probably got a kick out of the 74-yarder. He watched it from the sidelines last Friday night, which served as the first day of the fall contact period for basketball recruiting.

"Izzo, (Tom) Crean and (Matt) Painter were there."

And they'll keep following him, well into the autumn, when he takes official visits to Purdue (Oct. 1) and Indiana (Oct. 15 for midnight madness), with Michigan State batting last during the weekend of Nov. 5.

As for other weekends during the fall, that's when Harris gets his basketball time in.

"I get in the gym on the weekends and I try to work on everything," he said. "All aspects of my game, usually by myself, just going to work."

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