HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - At first glance, University of Southern Mississippi senior receivers DeMichael Harris and Neil McLaurin would have seem to have little in common beyond an aptitude for catching thrown footballs.
McLaurin, the former West Jones High School quarterback, goes a wiry 6 feet, 2 inches, 204 pounds, splitting wide in formations that usually have him running into instead of away from contact.
Harris might stand 5-9 as advertised, perhaps weighs the insisted-upon 175 pounds, but it’s often all a blur at any rate when the unseen wings on his ankles get the former St. Aloysius High School star up to streaking speed coming out of the slot.
But the pair share a similar story.
Both came out of the junior college ranks _ Harris from Hinds Community College; McLaurin from Southwest Mississippi Community College _ signing and enrolling early, ready to make an impact.
But injuries curtailed their first season, not only limiting their playing time but also restrictin what they could do once they were on the field.
“I was tore up last year,” McLaurin said. “I had a hip, both hamstrings. This year, I’m taking care of my body more and trying to stay healthy and stay on the field.”
Both are staring at a ticking clock, with only so many games left to them to make an impact during their time in Hattiesburg.
“Coach (Jay) Hopson brought me here for a reason, and that’s to make plays,” said Harris, who broke his hand late in the 2018 season. “I’m back, strong, hand’s better than ever. I’m ready to go.”
The duo is exp-expected to be among a fairly deep mix of wideouts and slotmen, including veterans like senior Jordan Mitchell and Trevor Terry, junior Tim Jones and sophomore Jaylond Adams.
Mitchell has been beset injuries throughout his career, while Adams only played in five games last season after suffering a high ankle sprain at Auburn University.
Jones had breakout season in 2018 with 42 catches. while Terry was at the other end of the receiving tree with just three catches.
Potentially deepening the talent pool: Newcomer Chris Scruggs Jr. has caught the eye of coaches this spring and fingers are crossed that 2018 leading receiver, junior-to-be Quez Watkins, can regain his academic eligibility and return this fall.
“I think that’s one thing that we have at that receiver position is a combination of size and speed,” Hopson said. “It’s always good to have those big guys along with those 5-10 guys who can really run.”
Big guys like McLaurin, who in 2018 was limited to seven catches for 101 yards and a touchdown.
It was that touchdown reception that Hopson recalled when talking about McLaurin and his upside.
“At Louisiana Tech, you had that play where Neil caught the ball and the guy hit him and bounced off of him and he went for the touchdown,” Hopson said. “I thought that was excellent. Neil’s a big physical receiver.”
And guys who can really run, like Harris, who caught 27 passes for 241 yards and two touchdowns.
“DeMichael, he got a little hurt last year with that broken hand, but when he’s in there, he’s an explosive guy,” Hopson said. “He came back, and even with that injury, he had some explosives against Texas-El Paso.
“He just makes some explosive plays, while Neil is that big, physical receiver.”
USM quarterback Jack Abraham said the receiving corps, including Harries and McLaurin have done a commendable job this spring working within a new offensive spread offensive system brought in by new coordinator Buster Faulkner.
“It’s just about getting those guys the ball, the playmakers _ Neil, DeMike, Jordan, Trevor, Tim _ we’ve got some guys out there _ Jaylond _ we’ve got some studs, and it’s my job to put the ball in their hands,” Abraham said.
Both Harris and McLaurin said they couldn’t wait.
“After you make a big play, get on the ball fast, and keep the tempo going and wear the defense out,” Harris said “It’s a whole different mindset. We’re trying to go fast, fast, fast, and catch the defense slipping.
“My skillset, in the open field, I feel like I’m one of the more dangerous players on our team. So, I want to make the best of my opportunities on the perimeter.”