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Back from 3 knee tears, Harris returns strong for Hoosiers

September 17, 2018

Indiana's J-Shun Harris (5) celebrates a touchdown against Ball State during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018 in Bloomington, Ind. (Jeremy Hogan/The Herald-Times via AP)

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Three times in college, J-Shun Harris has torn up his knee.

Each time, the Indiana Hoosiers’ punt returner has returned stronger.

Yes, the fifth-year senior continues to defy the odds, this time with an inspirational, early-season example for teammates and coaches alike.

“When he found out he had his third tear, I just assumed it was over,” coach Tom Allen said. “There comes a point in time that you’re like, ‘Hey, you know what, I’ve done this. It’s been great. It’s time to move on.’ But he’s never flinched and he’s worked his way back.”

So far, the 5-foot-8 speedster looks every bit as good as he did during he did during his breakout freshman season in 2014.

On Saturday, he tied the school record with his third career punt return for a score — an 86-yarder early in the second quarter that helped the Hoosiers take control of the game against Ball State. Two quarters later, he nearly did it again, hauling in a punt at the Cardinals’ 45 and returning it to about the Ball State 5 before an illegal block call negated most of the yardage.

This season, Harris owns the longest return among the Big Ten’s leaders and the third-highest average (13.9 yards) among those with more than one return. His numbers would be even higher if two other long returns had not been called back by penalties.

The reward came Monday when Harris was chosen the Big Ten’s special teams’ player of the week for the third time in 12 months.

“It felt awesome seeing all those guys at the end (of the TD return),” he said Saturday. “It was almost like a wall of them guiding me toward the end zone. My biggest mindset was to not trip or fall on any of their feet, and once I got into the end zone, it was a party.”

Everyone wanted to celebrate.

Harris understood better than most what the long journey back entailed.

After being named the Hoosiers’ newcomer of the year in 2014, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in one knee during the summer of 2015 and missed the entire season. He tore the ACL in his other knee during preseason camp in 2016 and missed a second full season.

Then, after returning punts for TDs against Virginia and Georgia Southern last September, he tore the ACL in his right knee for the second time on Oct. 28 against Maryland. Even he wasn’t sure if he would come back.

“There was definitely some questioning,” Harris said Saturday. “But I want to give a personal shout out to all my family, coaches and one of our athletic trainers, Collin Francis, for helping out a lot. He came up to me and asked, ‘You want to do this?” I said ‘yes’ and he said, ‘all right, let’s go.’”

The results have been equally impressive.

Harris, from Fishers, a northeastern suburb of Indianapolis, has re-emerged as a playmaking return specialist. He also caught his first pass of the season for 6 yards Saturday and hopes to become a more consistent offensive threat when the conference season begins Saturday against No. 24 Michigan State.

The Hoosiers are 3-0 for only the second time since 2010 and hope to start 4-0 for just the second time since 1991.

And with Harris rounding into form, instead of making his season debut as expected this weekend, Indiana heads into the Old Brass Spittoon game with momentum, motivation and a punt returner capable of flipping the game in seconds.

“In the beginning, we thought he was going to be ready for Michigan State, that’s what I had in my head going into the summer. He just worked his tail off and he’s proved everybody wrong,” Allen said. “He’s one of the best in country at what he does and he deserves everything he gets.”

NOTES: Allen said Monday game balls were awarded to quarterback Peyton Ramsey, linebacker Reakwon Jones and safety Jonathan Crawford as well as Harris and punter Haydon Whitehead. ... Allen hopes to have defensive end Gavin Everett and offensive lineman Mackenzie Nworah return soon from undisclosed injuries. Allen said Everett was a game-time decision and was only held out against Ball State to give him some extra time off. Nworah could return within two weeks.

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