Now in camp, Harris trying to make up for lost time

Cliff Harris is hoping to contribute as a cornerback and punt returner. Yong Kim / Staff Photographer
Cliff Harris is hoping to contribute as a cornerback and punt returner. Yong Kim / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 26, 2012

BETHLEHEM — While the rest of the Eagles rookies spent the spring at the NovaCare Complex participating in OTAs and minicamps and getting hands-on training from the team's coaching staff, Cliff Harris was home in California trying to stay in shape and learn as much as he could about his new team's defense from 3,000 miles away.

Harris, an undrafted free agent cornerback out of the University of Oregon, attended the team's first minicamp in May, then was banished from the premises because of a silly NFL rule that prohibits rookies from participating in more than that initial camp until after their school has completed final exams. Now, he's at Lehigh trying to catch-up.

"It's coming quickly, but I've missed a lot," Harris said Tuesday afternoon. "You've got to sleep in your playbook. I've got to sleep with my playbook next to me and try to be in there and learn as much as I can every day."

For most NFL rookies, the rule isn't a problem since most colleges are on a two-semester system and exams are over by early May. But about a dozen schools, including Oregon, are on a quarter system and don't finish up until mid-June.

Two years ago, Eagles safety Kurt Coleman was in the same situation. The 2010 seventh-rounder attended Ohio State, which also is on the quarter system, and missed all but the team's first minicamp.

"The priority is the education and making sure these kids finish their education and aren't dropping out because they want to get to camp early," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said. "It's a slippery slope and you want to make sure it's something that you're encouraging."

The problem with the rule, particularly as it pertains to Harris, is he wasn't even enrolled at Oregon this past semester. He dropped out last fall after getting thrown off the team for several off-the-field incidents including being cited for marijuana possession, and speeding (118 mph) with a suspended license.

"I'm just glad to be here, glad to be an Eagle," Harris said. "They took a chance on me. I'm just humble and thankful."

Despite his undrafted status, the 5-11, 180-pound Harris has a good shot at making the Eagles' 53-man roster. He was a second-team All-Pac 10 selection in 2010, leading the nation in passes defensed (23) and the conference in interceptions (six).

He's also an outstanding punt returner. He returned four punts for touchdowns 2 years ago. Eagles special teams coach Bobby April compared Harris' punt return skills to DeSean Jackson's when he came out of college.

"He's a phenomenal punt returner," April said. "We're going to give him a chance to make the team. And make it as a punt returner."

Secondary coach Todd Bowles said Harris shouldn't have too much trouble getting up to speed with the team's defense.

"I don't think [the time missed] is a big disadvantage for him because he played a lot of these coverages in college,'' Bowles said. “Terminology-wise, he has to get used to handling the words. But Cliff's a very instinctive football player. He can do things out on the field and see things better than the average rookie. So it's not a big detriment.

“We're not going to force-feed everything to him all at once. It's no different than with the vets. As the installs go, he'll be getting the same information at the same time they are."

Harris knows people will be watching him closely because of his off-the-field problems.

"It was a humbling experience, seeing what I had gained and seeing what I had lost," he said. "There's a couple of guys here that had a couple of mishaps in their college days. The Eagles, they took a chance on guys like us and we're all thankful for the opportunity." n

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