KANSAS CITY, Mo. — You know Jimmy Graham? Antonio Gates? Tony Gonzalez?
Demetrius Harris isn’t … well, he isn’t, um, there yet.
“I’ve never studied them, but I’ve seen (people) compare me to them,” Harris, the former collegiate basketball player at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said recently at the Kansas City Chiefs’ rookie minicamp, where he was learning the NFL tight end ropes on the fly. “But I ain’t there.”
He ain’t. This is a long-term project, a classic Bob Vila deal, a fixer-upper, a ride that needs some serious pimping along the way. Harris hasn’t played football competitively in more than three years, when he was an all-state prep at Jacksonville, Ark., just outside of Little Rock.
But what he does have are tools. The NFL loves tools. Harris is 6-foot-7-ish, runs a 40-yard dash in the 4.5 range and sports a vertical leap of 36.5 inches. In an era where the two most popular limbs on the pro passing tree are the fade and the quick slant, there’s a market for quick, rangy types who can flat-out pluck it. Everybody wants to be the genius that digs up a diamond mine, to find their own Gates, who was transformed from a power forward at Kent State into an eight-time Pro Bowler with San Diego. Graham played a little football and a lot of basketball at Miami (Fla.); Gonzalez was a two-way stud during his Cal-Berkeley days.
So it’s a salivating prospect, assuming you can endure the rough edges and the inevitable learning curve. And during an afternoon practice session that featured few completions of note, Harris provided one of the rare highlights, reaching out with those long arms past his defender to haul in a slightly overthrown slant from quarterback Dayne Crist, the former Kansas signal-caller. Big No. 47 looked completely natural as he snared the ball on a line, tucked it in quickly, and turned upfield.
The catching part, he’s already figured out. As for the rest …
“In high school, I didn’t block,” explained Harris, a former tight-end-slash-safety prospect. “I never got into a 3-point stance. So it’s going to be real difficult with footwork and stuff. So I’ve got to get used to that.”
The long and winding road from football to hoops and back again has been well-documented as of late: The 21-year-old Harris was recruited to play football at Arkansas State; didn’t make grades; took up basketball at Mineral Area (Mo.) Community College; decided to stick with hoops and wound up signing with Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he averaged 9.1 points and 5.3 rebounds in the Horizon League this past winter.
“Every time, he’d always tell me, ‘Stop being so physical’ when I was out there, because I liked the contact,” Harris said of his college coach, Rob Jeter — son of a pretty darned good football player himself, the late Bob Jeter, a mainstay of the Lombardi-era Packers. “So I had to slow up on that.”
This experiment figures to be slow, too, at least until the Chiefs front office decides to either invest further or cut bait. The arms are skinny by NFL standards — Harris reportedly only benched 225 pounds comfortably twice during a workout in Milwaukee early last month — and the build is much, much leaner than his peers.
Terminology is another headache; Harris said he only needed to learn a handful of plays in high school, enough that could easily fit onto a wristband. The first time he flipped through coach Andy Reid’s playbook, his eyes nearly popped out of his skull. It was like going from multiplication flash cards to a trigonometry textbook.
“Because it’s all new to me,” Harris said. “It’s like Chinese to me.”
In the meantime, the translating continues. Harris spent most of the day standing on the sidelines, with one or more of the Chiefs’ position coaches constantly in his ear, pointing this way or that. During another play, designed for a deep route along the corner, the rookie tight end ran at about a 50 percent clip and suddenly just stopped in his tracks.
As he saw the ball go over his head to another man, Harris then did something interesting: He made a downward ‘X’ across his chest with both arms — the way you do when setting a pick on the basketball court. Some routines die harder than others. You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org