Kyle Sorgi, Staff Writer
“I think he’s rare. Really, really special. Everyone on our team thinks he can bring it back every time he touches it.”
This is just one of the many forms of praise directed at New Orleans Saints rookie kick-return specialist, and Assumption College graduate, Deonte Harris. The specific quote above came from former NFL quarterback Tony Romo during a national broadcast, who echoes the words of Sean Payton, Head Coach of the Saints. If you think you have seen a little package that packs a mighty punch, wait until you see Harris return kicks for the Saints. There is certainly no shortage of what he has already done in his short stint in the NFL, nor what he still has to prove.
In his rookie season, only playing 14 games—missing two games due to injury—Harris paced the NFL in total punt-return yardage (338 yards on 36 punt returns, including a 53-yard touchdown in week three against the Seattle Seahawks) and finished top-five in kickoff return yardage (644 kickoff-return yards on 24 kickoff returns).
Altogether, that adds up to 982 total kick return yards, the most across the NFL. He broke records playing for Assumption by returning 14 total kicks for touchdowns and eight kicks for touchdowns in 2017 alone (the NCAA Division II single-season record), and passed the great Reggie Bush’s single-season record for punt-return yards by a rookie.
So, what did these accolades earn for Harris? A selection to the NFL Pro Bowl this past Sunday and the distinct honor of a selection to the NFL All-Pro Team as a punt-returner. Since the Saints are not in the Super Bowl, Harris got the chance to represent the Saints and Assumption College in his Pro Bowl debut in Orlando. He is the first undrafted Saints player to make it to the Pro Bowl as a rookie, and just the sixth in NFL history.
Along with his proven potential as a kick-returner, Payton also incorporated Harris’ rushing and receiving skills into the Saints’ offense every now and then. Throughout the regular season, he caught six passes for 24 yards and ran the ball three times for 21 yards.
In the Saints’ Wild Card overtime playoff loss to the Minnesota Vikings, Harris caught a 50-yard pass that set up a subsequent Saints touchdown, and executed a deep punt return that gave the Saints a great—but missed—opportunity to score right before halftime. From undrafted-free-agent status to Pro Bowler and NFL All-Pro Team member, Harris made quite the transition to the big leagues, packing lightning-speed into a small, yet dynamic, five-foot-six-inch figure. And, hopefully, this is just the beginning for Harris.
New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton truly believes in Harris and his versatile skillset. When Harris first tried out for the Saints, along with fellow Assumption College alum Cole Tracy—who broke kicking records at LSU and is now playing in the XFL for the Seattle Dragons—Payton saw something special in Harris, believing that he can be one of the best kick-returners in the NFL.
After some early-season woes, Harris proved him right, electrifying his own teammates and the rest of league. As Romo mentioned after Harris’ punt-return-touchdown against the Seahawks, “Everyone on [the Saints] thinks he can bring it back every time he touches [the ball],” showing great confidence in what Harris is capable of doing.
When opposing teams strategically punt the ball out of bounds or direct kickoffs to different players, that shows their awareness of the explosiveness that Harris possesses on the other end of the field. He is making a solid name for himself on the big stage, certainly deserving all of the respect and recognition he is getting from coaches, teammates, and the rest of the league through a Pro Bowl invitation and an NFL All-Pro Team honor.