By Karen Guregian
Not long after Herm Edwards took over as head coach at Arizona State, he brought N’Keal Harry into his office and presented him with a gift.
The former NFL head coach knew just by watching his talented receiver on film and in practice where Harry was headed. So he wanted to give him a bit of a head start on his future.
“I brought him in my office, and I showed him a playbook. An NFL playbook,” Edwards said when reached earlier this week. “I said, ’N’Keal, this is an NFL playbook. This is what you’re going to be required to learn. You understand what I’m telling you, now? You’re eventually going to have to learn this. All of this. Not in one day, but that’s the difference in that league, compared with college football. There’s a volume of things. But you have more time now. You don’t have to go to class, there’s no 20-hour rule, this is not a hobby. This is professional football. This is how you make your living. This is what you have to learn. So he understands what he’s walking into. He’s not naive.”
When prepping Harry for the road ahead, however, Edwards didn’t know the NFL playbook N’Keal would ultimately be handed a year later would belong to the New England Patriots. He didn’t know his star receiver would have to grasp one of the most intricate offenses, not to mention have to get on the same page with the GOAT, Tom Brady.
In college it’s so much different. Teams don’t necessarily huddle with the offensive plays being called. Receivers get their directions from the coaches on the sideline, not the quarterback. That’s how they know where to go, what kind of route to run.
Even with that, Edwards was sure Harry wouldn’t blink when faced with something completely different in the home of a six-time Super Bowl champion. He’s smart enough to adapt and learn how to handle a big-time offense and a four-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback who demands a lot from his receivers.
“He understands the pressure of playing with Captain America, Tom Brady. That’s pressure,” said Edwards. “I saw it when Joe Montana came to Kansas City, and I was an assistant coach. Those players -- and I’m talking veteran players -- they were scared to death of dropping a Joe Montana pass. And I’m pretty sure, if you’re a receiver in Foxboro, you probably don’t want to drop too many of Brady’s balls if he throws it to you. I would think that. But he’ll be OK.”
Not many rookie receivers have lasted or been able to adapt. The list is fairly long of those who flunked the transition with the Pats, be it Chad Jackson (second round), Aaron Dobson (second round), Taylor Price (third round) and Josh Boyce (fourth round), just to name a few.
Edwards believes Harry will survive because of his makeup and what he brings to the table. After all, what quarterback wouldn’t want a receiver who fights for the ball and usually comes down with it? Harry, who has great hands, was the king of the contested catch in college.
“Tom will be good with him. He’ll see his talent, and he’ll know he can help him,” said Edwards. “He knows I can throw the ball to this guy. He’ll be covered, but he’ll catch it. And once you earn (Tom’s) trust, you got a chance.”
Harry, who is listed at 6-foot-2, 228 pounds, was a first-team all-conference pick. This past season he had 73 receptions for 1,088 yards, scoring nine times in 12 games.
Edwards indicated that while Harry was primarily used on the outside, he moved him into the slot this past year on occasion because it gave him matchup advantages. No doubt the Patriots will also take advantage of that versatility.
“He’s played on both sides of the ball. He’s played inside. He is a big, physical guy,” said Edwards. “He’s going to make the catch where he’s covered. He’s going to make that catch 80 percent of the time. He’ll jump up, or find a way to use his body and catch the ball because he’s very strong. He’s a good hands catcher especially when the ball’s in the air, up high, where he can judge it.”
The fact he can play inside or out allows him to run some of the routes the now-retired Rob Gronkowski used to run. He won’t be used as a tight end, per se, but he might be able to replicate some Gronk-like plays in the offense.
NFL Network analyst Charles Davis, who covered the draft in Nashville and covers a lot of college football, agreed.
“At his size, he can take a lot of those tight end routes. They can make him a big slot,” Davis said when reached Tuesday. “He also will win outside of the numbers because he can go over the top of people and make plays, or, he can wall them off with his body and make that contested catch. And he’s fast enough that he’ll run by you, if you underestimate him.
“The good thing about him, at his size, he’s not one dimensional,” Davis added. “I think he’s got some wiggle and shake to him.”
Harry was Michigan’s punt returner the past three seasons, so there’s the possibility of him helping in that department if needed. It seems fairly apparent he’s good in the open field.
“I think what they’re going to learn about him, he’s a good runner with the ball in his hands. He’s a big man. He’s not some little 190-pound receiver. He’s 210 pounds,” said Edwards. “He’s a big, strong guy. You’re going to have to be a willing tackler. You can’t come up there thinking you’re going to knock him down with your little arm-tackle. You have to tackle this guy. He’s going to bounce off you if you don’t wrap him up. If you don’t want to tackle him, he’s going to give you problems.”
Edwards puts him in pretty lofty company when he draws a parallel to what type of NFL receiver Harry projects to be.
While Lindy’s Sports drew a comparison to current Patriot Demaryius Thomas in its NFL Draft guide, Edwards picked another formidable receiver.
“He was an excellent basketball player in high school. He’s a really good athlete. I compare him a lot, and I don’t like comparing guys, but I’ve done this with him -- he’s like Dez Bryant,” Edwards said, referring to the former Cowboy. “Same height, size-wise. He’s an emotional player. He plays with emotion. And so, that kind of fits for those guys.”
Like Bryant, Harry loves the big games, being involved, and making the plays that help win those games. He won’t disappear when his number is called.
“That’s the NFL. You have to be comfortable when it’s uncomfortable. He’s okay with that. He’s like any good player, when the bright lights come on, he doesn’t run to the shade,” said Edwards. “He runs to the middle of the arena, and says, ‘C’mon, I want to compete.’ That doesn’t mean he’s going to win every time, but you want a guy that has that mindset. You want to play with guys like that.”
Harry arrives with a fascinating backstory. He was born in Toronto, but his family is from St. Vincent in the Caribbean. His grandmother brought him to the United States (Scottsdale, Ariz.) when he was just four years old. Eventually, they settled in Chandler, Arizona.
“Grandma did a good job with him. He overcame a lot of adversity in his life to get to where he’s at,” said Edwards. “I’m proud of him. I’m happy for him.”
Harry saw his relatives recently and remains in contact. But it had to be tough being apart, and pursuing his dream.
“I’ve been extremely blessed with the people that have been around me, with the company that has been around me,” Harry said during a conference call last Thursday. “I feel like I was blessed with people that have the same mindset as me, people that want to improve, people that want to learn, people that want to grow.”
Edwards believes he landed in the right place in New England, the first receiver Belichick has ever taken in the first round.
“This kid wants to compete, he wants to win,” said the ASU coach. “He hates losing. He’s the kind of guy you want on your team.”