Harris back after 2 ACL tears: “It’s been a hard road for him”

There were difficult days, to be sure. Days when J-Shun Harris wondered if football was worth the pain and trouble.

ACL tears in both knees — one to his right during the summer of 2015, and one to his left last August — will do that.

The first couple weeks after surgery are the most difficult, and with Harris shelved for a second consecutive season last year, he debated whether this sport had a payoff for him.

“I’m human,” Harris said. “I was at a point where my leg’s not feeling right and I don’t know if I want to continue to do this. But I kept my faith up and kept going.”

Now, he’s in the midst of the first full week of fall camp, ready to reclaim a place inside IU’s receiving corps along with a job as a return man on special teams.

Harris, who hasn’t played in a game since IU beat Purdue on Nov. 29, 2014, says he feels 100 percent healthy after missing each of the past two seasons.

And he has high expectations for his return this fall.

“For one, I just can pray I stay healthy,” said Harris, a redshirt junior from Fishers. “All of that aside, as any receiver will say, they always want to start, they want to lead the country, lead the Big Ten. I definitely have high goals for myself this season.”

Those goals include a quest to make at least 10 touchdown receptions. As a freshman, he caught 18 passes for 168 yards and two scores, finishing third on IU’s team in yards and fourth in receptions.

That production came during a season when IU lost two quarterbacks to transfers prior to the season, lost two more quarterbacks to season-ending injuries in the same game at Iowa midway through the fall and was forced to throw true freshman Zander Diamont into the fires of Big Ten football across the final six games.

Even with a suboptimal quarterback situation, the 5-foot-8 Harris flashed his potential as a reliable target out of the slot. After the season, he earned All-Big Ten Freshman team honors from 247 Sports and BTN.com. He was also named IU’s Newcomer of the Year.

IU coach Tom Allen entered fall camp last week without having seen that version of Harris. Since Allen arrived as defensive coordinator in the spring of 2016, Harris has been sidelined.

But through the first few days of camp, Allen is beginning to see what Harris can bring to the offense. In Friday’s practice, for example, Harris made an impressive catch on a deflected ball near the sideline.

“He does so many things you ask him and you’re so excited for him to be able to get back out there,” Allen said. “It’s been a hard road for him to get back, but we need his explosiveness in the return game and we need it at that slot position, just to be able to make guys miss.”

While he recovered from his first ACL injury in 2015, Harris watched videos of NFL players who had recovered from similar injuries and then returned to play at a high level. During a long, and at times difficult, recovery process, seeing others thrive helped boost his morale.

He did the same thing this time, too, while leaning on the support of his parents and teammates who had also dealt with similar injuries.

“I’m a strong guy of faith,” Harris said. “That, including my parents, kept me motivated, kept me going. It’s like if you get knocked down and stay down, that’s on you. If you get up, then positive things come about when you get up. I definitely kept that in mind. I’m not the only one that this has happened to.”

As Harris continued to recover during the course of the past year, he noticed his rehabilitation was moving at a nice pace. The deeper he dove into rehab, the more familiar the process became.

Having endured it all only a year prior, he knew about little things, like making sure his leg was straight while he sat around his home and relaxed at his leisure.

“Going through it once, I knew what to do and what not to do with the second one,” Harris said. “The recovery process was a lot easier, I would say. I knew what to do as far as getting my legs stronger. The mental part, at first, I was kind of down a little bit. But thank God for great teammates and the great family that I have. They kept my mind up and told me to stick with it and continue to stay strong. Thankfully, I’m here now.”