By BEN JOHNSON
Kyler Harris was Mitch Stevenson’s favorite target for the Muskogee Roughers in 2009. Harris was also Victor Williams’ go-to wide receiver before Harris blew out his right knee in 2010.
Now, in 2012, Division II quarterbacks — more specifically, quarterbacks in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association — are trying to avoid throwing in his direction. Not bad for Harris, Northeastern State’s starting strong safety who considers himself an offensive player by trade.
“I am much further progressed from where I was last year,” said Harris, a 6-foot, 180-pound sophomore. “Last year, I was kind of a little raw. I’d mainly been an offensive player before I came here and the coaches wanted me to focus on being a safety. I’ve really learned a lot.”
He certainly has.
After recording only 12 tackles and one interception as a part-time fill-in for the RiverHawks in 2011, Harris is already off to a solid start this season. He had seven tackles and one interception against Pittsburg State in a 41-20 loss at Doc Wadley Stadium in Week 1.
Harris’ interception against Pitt State quarterback Anthony Abenoja came on a play that NSU and Harris had seen film on prior to the start of the season.
“We worked on that play several times,” said Harris, who catapulted himself across the line of scrimmage to intercept a pass intended for Pitt State wide receiver Luke Rampy on a bubble screen route. “I hadn’t picked one in practice, but I guess I just read it fast enough to get there.”
Also contributing to Harris’ development at safety is his sidekick at free safety, Victor Johnson. The Oklahoma State transfer has taken Harris under his wing and taught him the ropes in the defensive backfield.
“Victor has been in some big games, and those two communicate between each other a lot,” NSU head coach Kenny Evans said. “There is nothing like the experience (Harris) is gaining from working next to someone like that.”
Harris said he certainly sees Johnson as a mentor.
“He gives me a different mindset when we come into games,” Harris said. “Most of the time I’m worried about playing my position, but then there are times when he tells me to let loose and play.”
Out of high school, Harris had drawn interest from colleges such as Louisiana-Monroe and Central Arkansas. But in the end, Harris ended up where both of his parents earned degrees from.
Evans said it was just a matter of sticking with Harris throughout the recruiting process.
“He was recruited pretty heavily early on and was offered Division I,” Evans said of Harris, who missed most of senior year at Muskogee after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. “We stuck with him and continued to recruit him. His father played football here, which was a big help.
“We knew that he was a great athlete that had a big upside.”
This week, Harris and the RiverHawks will switch gears on defense in preparing for Missouri Southern’s triple-option attack on offense. Rather than facing a balanced Pitt State offense, NSU will square with a team that ran the ball 63 times — with nine different ball carriers — for 249 yards in a 25-20 victory over Central Oklahoma.
“We have to make sure to come up and hit fast,” Harris said of the game plan for the defensive backs against Missouri Southern. “But at the same time, we are DB’s and we have to play pass first. We have guys up front who can make plays; we just have to make sure to trust them and not do too much.”