Gerald Harris hasn't even been at Ole Miss for a full year yet, and already, the junior college transfer has become the senior citizen of the Rebels' tight end corps.
Harris, a 6-foot-5, 250-pounder from Navarro (Texas) College via Terrell, Texas, had been a co-starter along with David Traxler all season. When Traxler went down with a back injury, likely for the season, Harris' already important role in the Rebels' offense became even more critical.
The Rebels' tight end situation is so dire right now that Bradley Sowell has made a temporary move from offensive tackle to serve as the other tight end in Ole Miss' two-tight end sets. Harris' backup, Reggie Hicks is a converted fullback.
"It's more playing time," Harris said. "The responsibilities aren't any more or any less. I always felt like I had a huge responsibility to my team, as we all do. That's what comes with winning, trying to get wins and trying to be a team. You have a responsibility to your teammates. I had to step up and that's what happened."
Harris freely admits that he was brought to Ole Miss (5-4) to serve as a blocking tight end. He's extremely good at it. However, Harris knows he needs to be at least a pass-catching threat for the Rebels' offense to reach its full potential. Harris caught one pass for nine yards in Ole Miss' 17-7 win over Auburn on Nov. 1, giving him four catches for 33 yards and a touchdown going into the Rebels' Nov. 15 home date against Louisiana-Monroe (3-7).
"I think that's just going to come with time," Harris said. "They look at me more than I've ever been looked at. Let's face it. I came here as a blocking tight end and that's what I still am. But I think that's going to come in time with me maturing as a passing threat.
"Right now, I think it's all on me. Whenever they call my number, I've got to make the catch. First I have to get open then make the catch and I think that's all going to come with time, finding holes in the defense and maturity."
Ole Miss offensive coordinator Kent Austin said he's seen major progress from Harris in recent weeks, yet another good sign for the Rebels' short- and long-term future at the position.
"I think Gerald's really come on this season," Austin said. "I really do. He's turned into a pretty good player. He's pretty good in the run game. He's still developing in the passing game, but he's a great kid with a great heart who plays really, really hard. He plays to the whistle and does everything and more that we ask him."
Next season, Harris will get a little help at the position. While he'll almost certainly remain the starter, Ole Miss will have a strong influx of talent at tight end. Freshmen E.J. Epperson and Ferbia Allen are taking redshirts this season but have been turning heads and popping eyes all fall.
"They're extremely athletic. Both of them can block and both of them can run routes and both of them can catch. I think with those two, the sky's the limit. Especially with Coach (Don Decker) and Coach (Houston) Nutt and Coach Austin putting them in position, the sky's the limit for those two. I think they'll definitely be playing on the next level and if not playing on the next level, they'll be top athletes here for Ole Miss."