Given the choice of turning on the jets and blowing past everybody to catch a long bomb of some 60 or so yards or catching a five yard pass and then making six or seven people look absolutely silly over those same 60 yards, there’s no question which option Percy Harvin will take. A lot of guys, he will tell you, can outrun people. Not too many have the ability to make people miss.
Scoring touchdowns is what it’s all about for this freshman phenom from Virginia Beach, Virginia, rated by most scouting services as the number one high school player in the country last year, but he has a deeper appreciation for the ones he scores in the catch me if you can games he plays once the ball is in his hands. In his final two high school seasons he scored 64 touchdowns, 31 on pass receptions, 23 running the ball, seven on kick returns and three on pass interceptions. That’s why it was a celebration day in the Florida football offices the day Percy Harvin announced he was going to be a Florida Gator.
Harvin is a difference maker that can turn any routine play into a highlight reel show that sucks the oxygen out of a stadium. Once the ball is in his hands, everybody inhales and holds their breath waiting to see what he does next.
“I love making people miss,” said Harvin at Florida’s Media Day on Friday. “A five-yard stop, that’s all I need and then let me go and make people miss.”
Injuries at the wide receiver position left the Gators in dire need of speedy playmakers last year. Bubba Caldwell was the only receiver with the kind of elusiveness you need to change routine plays into backbreakers for opponents so when he went down in the third game with a broken leg on the second half kickoff, the Gators struggled in that area the rest of the season. When Dallas Baker, Jemalle Cornelius and Chad Jackson all had to fight their way through injuries that slowed them down, Florida’s offense came to a virtual standstill.
That’s why it was a necessity for Meyer to recruit players like Harvin, Jarred Fayson, Brandon James, Justin Williams and Riley Cooper. They were difference makers in high school and they bring that element of elusiveness to the table for the Gators. Meyer has said since day one that he needs 12 wide receivers to make the offense go and he needs game breakers in the return games. It’s been since 1999 that the Gators returned a kickoff for a touchdown and 2000 since Florida had a punt return for a score. These freshmen bring the necessary depth to the wide receiver corps and they bring the game breaking explosiveness that Meyer wants in the kicking game.
While Harvin certainly figures to be a factor as a wide receiver playing one of the inside slots where he can run pass routes and get involved in the running game on reverses and option pitches, he is also expected to infuse the return game with an element of speed and elusiveness that hasn’t been seen on Florida kick return teams in some time. He discovered just how important Meyer thinks the return games are watching film of the Florida kick returners from 2005 a few nights ago.
“There were a couple of plays where a player broke and he got brought down or ankle dogged by a kicker because any time a player breaks it should be a home run or a touchdown,” said Harvin, who said that Meyer smacked the blackboard with his hand when he saw the returner go down.
“Coach likes people who make big plays,” said Harvin. “He’s all about big plays and just to know they were a couple of big plays from making the big dance last year, he got a little emotional.”
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Florida’s passing game will be loaded with far more weapons than last year. Caldwell is back and healthy, so he brings the ability to stretch a defense vertically along with the elusiveness to turn short passes into big gainers. Dallas Baker and Jemalle Cornelius are both vertical defense stretchers and Cornelius Ingram brings a lethal combination of speed and size to the underneath game. Tight end Tate Casey figures to have a very good year and senior Kenneth Tookes has had a breakout August, looking very much like a go to receiver that can be something more than a possession type of guy.
Now add in the rookies. There’s redshirt freshman David Nelson, a tall deep threat in the Dallas Baker mold, and Riley Cooper, another tall guy with outstanding straight ahead speed. There are Harvin and Fayson, near mirror images of each other in that they have the blazing speed and the stop and go ability that leaves defenders face first in the grass slobbering in their own sweat. Justin Williams runs such smooth routes that he hardly looks like he’s moving until you see that he’s five yards behind everybody.
Florida can go big. Florida can go small. Florida can go all speed. Florida can go all hands. It’s mix and match for offensive coordinator Dan Mullen who can create mismatches galore with his personnel this year, an option he didn’t have last year.
The depth option will be there not just because the rookies are talented, but also because they all have a very strong work ethic. Harvin, who was starting his morning workouts at 4:30 a.m. in Virginia Beach before he enrolled at Florida in Summer B, has impressed all of Florida’s coaches with his willingness to put in the hard work.
“He [Harvin] has tremendous work ethic,” said wide receivers Coach Billy Gonzales. “Yesterday [Thursday] he was a little sore and we pulled him out of practice for half a period and after practice he came up to me and said ‘coach don’t pull me out. I want to go, I want to get going.’
“He definitely is a guy you think that can become an impact player at this level right now right now because he’s very fast, very explosive. He’s picking up his plays very fast right now. In our offense, know our formations. If you don’t know our formations you’re lost. You can’t function in this offense. Secondly, you better be able to block. Then you better be able to make some plays. He’s been pretty darn good at all three of those.”
Because he’s shown the willingness to work and learn, it was only fitting that Harvin, last year’s number one high school player in the nation, became the first of the freshman recruits to have the black stripe removed off his helmet by his “big brother,” senior wide receiver Jemalle Cornelius.
“I’m working hard and just running hard all the time, doing what the coach asks and making plays,” said Harvin. “To have him [Cornelius] come pull my stripe off — I know he put a lot of hard work in it — to have him come pull my stripe off meant a lot to me.”
When he got his stripe removed in front of the team after Wednesday’s practice, Harvin had to give a little speech to his teammates.
“I told them this [Gainesville] is my home town,” he said. “My mom and everybody is moving down here so this is my new home town. I told them I’m going to help us win a championship and I was going to continue to work hard.”
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He already has a strong work ethic but if he even thinks about slacking off a little bit, that thought is quickly erased by his roomie, freshman quarterback Tim Tebow. Harvin got a glimpse of Tebow at the US Army All-American game where they were teammates on the East team back in January, but now that he has seen Tebow over a protracted period of time, he knows the gung ho attitude is all real and not just a show.
“He always does extra,” said Harvin. “You say run 10 and he’ll run 12. He’ll dive across the finish line on concrete. In the gym they were doing races and Tim, there was no way he was going to win but he still gave the effort and he still had to get back up and run another one. We all said ‘good gracious he dove and he still had to run another.’ He’s got some screws loose but we love it and he works hard and you’ve got to expect.”
Harvin says that the freshman class follows Tebows lead and they are all inspired to see how Tebow and junior middle linebacker Brandon Siler go at it every day.
“Those two compete at everything they do,” he said. “Those two are the hardest workers on the team.”
Harvin loves the hard work and he is willing to play through the pain, too.
“If you’re hurt you can keep going but if you’re injured you can’t practice,” said Harvin. “Injuries are like a broken leg but if you have a hip pointer or something he [Coach Meyer] expects you to work through it. I just work hard all the time. I never quit.”
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In the spring of his junior year at Landstown High School in Virginia Beach, Harvin won five gold medals in the state high school track championships, claiming the 100, 200, long jump and triple jump individual medals and then running the anchor leg of the winning 4X100 relay team.
By winning the five gold medals, he won a bet with his mom. Linda Harvin promised new rims for his car if he came home with five. Since Percy was a little guy, she’s always tried to motivate him to do what might seem impossible. She thought five gold medals was a great goal but didn’t think it was achievable.
Linda Harvin felt pretty safe with 40 yards remaining in the 4X100 relay but Percy put on a burst at the end to get the win for Landstown in the event and earn a tie for his team for the state title.
“What are the odds he wins give gold medals?” Linda Harvin told Fightin’ Gators Magazine. “He got me good on that one.”
Harvin didn’t get a chance to defend his five gold medals. There were a couple of incidents in high school football games in which Harvin got flagged for retaliating. and there was a high school referee that said Harvin spit in his face, a charge that Percy vehemently denies. During basketball season, he was undercut on a couple of fast breaks and that led to Linda Harvin pulling him off the team for what she considered her son’s safety.
“It was crazy,” he said. “I would go home and say this is crazy, Mom, what’s going on?”
With the number of incidents in games increasing against him to go with the incident with the referee, the Virginia High School League suspended Harvin from competitive athletics the rest of his high school career in February. At first, the suspension was upsetting but Harvin now says it was a blessing.
“When I was suspended I kind of looked at it as a blessing,” he said. “I got to sit out and get healthy and get ready to come here. I got healthy and I got strong. It kind of didn’t hurt me.”
Looking back the only regret he has is not going head to head with Charles Clark at the state track meet.
“That was tough because there was a dude Charles Clark from Bayside,” said Harvin. “We competed against each other since middle school and he hadn’t beaten me yet. This was the year he was supposed to beat me but I don’t know why people thought that. He’s a real mouthy person. He finally got his gold medals because I didn’t run.”
But the record of five is still safe and it still belongs to Harvin.
“He only got three,” Harvin says with a smile.
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Harvin is hoping the hard work translates into playing time and opportunities to show Gator fans what he can do with the ball in his hands. He puts up big numbers but he’s not about numbers. He’s all about winning just that he knows the chances of winning improve dramatically when he has a chance to help.
He’s not sure where the elusiveness comes from, just that he’s got it and he’s always had it. His mother, Linda Harvin, has said that when he was a little kid all the children in the neighborhood were playing “tag, you’re it” that Percy was never “it.”
“It’s like a vision,” he said. “I can run sideways and I can see people through my peripheral vision. I think it’s something you’re just born with. I think Brandon James has the same thing. I think it’s God’s gift and you’re just born with it.”
It is a gift that promises to strike fear in defensive coordinators and special teams coordinators throughout the Southeastern Conference. Percy Harvin has the gift and he knows how to use it. This is not a case of will he break loose? It’s only a matter of time.