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Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012

Auburn football: Tigers long-snapper Josh Harris goes from long-shot walk-on to NFL prospect

- jerickson@ledger-enquirer.com
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The motion is always the same.

Josh Harris wraps his right hand around the ball like he’s going to throw it.

Holding it in his fingertips as he bends over, Harris rotates his hand under the ball and places his left hand on top, his middle finger stretched along the seam.

Some guys snap without looking through their legs. Harris always looks. He wants to see his target. At the snap, Harris’ arms flash back, his hands rotating outward. The ball comes flying out of his hands in a tight spiral, right into his teammate’s waiting hands.

Harris has repeated that motion thousands of times.

And it might land him in the NFL for the next decade. Harris, a former walk-on who has been Auburn’s long-snapper the past three seasons, is the top-rated snapper in the 2012 NFL Draft.

“It would be awesome to get that opportunity,” Harris said. “If you can establish yourself as a reliable guy, they keep them around for a good bit.”

David Binn snapped for the San Diego Chargers for 17 years, Joe Zelenka of the Falcons has been in the NFL for 13 years, and the 49ers’ Brian Jennings is a 12-year veteran.

Patrick Mannelly, the Chicago Bears’ long-snapper for the last 13 years, has played in 200 games, a team-record for a franchise that has been around since 1919.

Mannelly’s agent, Brooks Henderson of International Sports Advisors, also represents Harris, the highest-rated snapper in the draft. Saturday, he played in the Senior Bowl, and he is the only snapper invited to the NFL Combine.

“I think the way it sets up for Josh, playing in the Senior Bowl and the Combine gives him a huge leg up on the other guys,” Henderson said. “Hopefully, he’s got a bright future.”

Growing up in Carrollton, Ga., Harris discovered the discipline of long-snapping by default. When he first started playing organized football in seventh grade, his team needed somebody to snap.

“My coach was like, ‘Hey, Josh, you’re going to be our snapper,’” Harris said. “He demonstrated it one time. I stuck with it, taught myself how to snap.”

Few high school kids have to teach themselves to snap anymore. Between Pop Warner, coaching clinics and camps built for long-snappers, most kids can find plenty of instruction.

Harris, a three-sport athlete who wrestled and played baseball, never had to go to camps.

“He’s always had pretty good hand-eye coordination, and he just figured it out,” his father, John said. “It’s a gift.”

A linebacker and defensive end at Carrolton, Harris wanted to play defense in college. A few FCS schools showed a little interest in Harris as a defensive player -- but only as a preferred walk-on.

One of his assistant coaches in high school, Jason Galt, came up with another idea. Galt had been a walk-on at Georgia, and he knew enough about snapping to know Harris had a knack.

He told Harris to walk on at a major-college program.

“I grew up a huge Auburn fan; my granddad played on the 1957 national championship team,” Harris said, referring to James Morrow, a freshman on that squad. “Auburn was the only place.”

More than 100 students attended Auburn’s walk-on tryouts under former head coach Tommy Tuberville. Only a few made the cut.

Harris was one of them, but his path to the lineup was blocked by Dax Dellenbach, a scholarship player recruited by Tuberville’s staff to handle long-snapping duties.

And then the coaching staff changed. When Gene Chizik took over as head coach, new special-teams coordinator Jay Boulware held an open competition for the job.

Harris won. A year later, he had a scholarship, and Dellenbach transferred to Florida State.

“I didn’t realize what we were getting,” Boulware said. “Our first year, Josh led the punt team in tackles. He used to wrestle, was a pretty good wrestler, and I realized very quickly that Josh had a lot of toughness in him.”

Auburn’s spread-punt formation allowed Boulware to highlight Harris’s athleticism. Free from protection responsibilities, Harris could be a force in coverage.

In the NFL, the 6-foot-1, 250-pound Harris will have to block, but he faces very little learning curve on the snap.

Most NFL teams want the time of a snap to be at 0.75 seconds. Harris’s times almost always are between 0.66 and 0.69, and he’s accurate. In three years as Auburn’s long-snapper, Harris never has snapped a ball the Tigers couldn’t handle.

“He is going to be sorely missed at our place,” Boulware said.

Harris probably will not hear his name called during the draft. Only four of the NFL’s regular long-snappers in 2011 were drafted. Most of those guys were drafted as position players.

But several NFL teams already have interviewed Harris at Senior Bowl practices. If he isn’t drafted, Henderson expects Harris to sign a contract an hour after the draft ends.

The reality started to settle in when he packed for the Senior Bowl last week.

Harris has a shot at a dream most college football players never realize.

“To be honest, coming into this season, I thought I might get a chance to snap for scouts at Auburn’s Pro Day,” Harris said. “To have all this happen, I’m really excited for the next couple of months.”

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