Pokes’ staff sees bright future ahead for DeVonne Harris
LARAMIE -- Wet, heavy snowfall, mixed with a little Wyoming wind and a sweaty brow combined to cause a cloudy season finale for DeVonne Harris.
Still, the Cowboys' freshman defensive end racked up a career-high five tackles, including one for loss in just his fifth collegiate game. The goggles he wears under his helmet were jostled and steamed up all afternoon as he took down Boise State ball carriers in the snow.
They fog up even more in the heat, he says.
"They call them 'speed goggles,'" Harris joked about what his teammates say about his unique eyewear. "I don't really like contacts. I got the goggles back in my freshman year of high school."
Harris said the spectacles are much easier to clear off than a visor.
"They have to take their entire helmet off," he said.
What was clear to see, however, was Harris' progression last fall. It was unexpected, to a degree.
When Solomon Byrd and Devon Wells-Ross decided to sit out for the season, and injuries and additional opt outs claimed more bodies on the defensive front, Harris was thrust into action. Joining him were fellow rookies Jordan Bertagnole, Gavin Meyer, Jaylen Pate and Cameron Smith. Having an updated roster came in handy in 2020.
This no-name group of inexperienced youngsters held their own. In fact, they eclipsed expectations all around. Wyoming's rush defense finished 21st in the nation, allowing just 125.3 yards per game on the ground. The Cowboys' pass defense also landed in the Top 30, giving up just over 200 yards per outing.
Though Harris has yet to register his first sack, UW's pass rushers got to opposing quarterbacks 17 times. That ranked the Cowboys No. 25 in the country in that category.
"It meant a lot," Harris said of the confidence gained in 2020. "That was my first time actually playing in a game since I was a senior in high school."
Harris did play sparingly in Wyoming's 2019 Arizona Bowl victory over Georgia State, but as far as putting his hand in the dirt, that hasn't happened since his days at Big Lake High School in Minnesota. There, Harris was ranked the No. 12 prospect in the state after playing both defensive end and tight end for the Hornets. He earned third-team All-State honors as a senior, and was selected to the 2018 Minnesota High School All-Star Game.
Minnesota and North Dakota State were interested in the three-star recruit -- Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl and his staff sealed the deal.
Harris has been taking care of the rest.
"There's a confidence now that they've lined up and play in games," UW defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel said last spring. "DeVonne's best performance was his last one, against Boise. There's a different level of player now than there was in October last year. That's true progress. That's the progress that you get from actually competing in games, preparing for games, going through that process."
Harris isn't listed on the Cowboys' initial two-deep depth chart of the 2021 season against Montana State, but that doesn't mean he won't play.
"You know, we have some entrenched starters, but he's making his presence known out there," Bohl also said about Harris during the spring.
Marty English, Wyoming's second-year defensive ends coach, admitted it was a bizarre 2020 for a number of reasons, one of which was staring at an entire group of freshmen in meetings last fall.
He didn't know what to expect. Now, he does.
"I mean, we got to do nothing but keep trying to get better," English laughed. "But to get that experience and watch them perform the way they did throughout the year and continue to get better, just gives us a lot of hope for this year.
"The depth is phenomenal right now."
For Harris, the transition -- for the most part -- was a smooth one. He said he's a smart player and the playbook can come easy to him at times. That doesn't mean he hasn't made mistakes or taken a lick or two on the practice field.
"During fall camp we were doing starters versus starters," he said of the abbreviated practices the Cowboys took part in last October. "We were doing some team (drills) and went to go hit the tight end. He came out and hit me. It was Colin (O'Brien), I'm pretty sure. He hit me and rung my bell a little bit."
What did Harris learn from that situation?
"I have to go hit a little bit harder," he joked.
Training table milkshakes have assisted in helping him lay those hits. Harris said he played last fall at 222 pounds. He's roughly 230 now.
Some of the veterans in the defensive end room have aided in his progression, too.
Harris said super senior Garrett Crall is always quick to help with mental reps, film and the playbook. Byrd is his on-the-field guide, showing him correct technique and form. What has really made a difference this fall, according to Harris, is team continuity.
COVID-19 all but stripped that from the entire team in 2020.
"We opened up the (lunch room) again. That got us back to being tighter. It was all to-go last year," he said. "We lost that connection. Now, it's open and we can have a good time, get closer. We can sit in our actual room, too. Last year we were in a bigger room for distancing."
Bohl thinks this group can be really good. So does Sawvel and English.
Count Crall in, too, though he did admit there were times last year that the youngsters were "running around like chickens with their heads cut off."
"Yeah, I'm definitely excited," he said of Harris. "DeVonne, he's grown up a lot since he first got here. You know, whether it's with his speed or strength, he's grown up a lot. But he's also matured a lot in the football aspect, just knowing the game. I think that's been good. He's learning to constantly just push himself because he's a real athletic guy."
Harris thinks something special could be on the horizon. The Cowboys are just four days away from proving it in a real game.
"I think the guys we have -- Garrett, Solo, Jaylen and Vic (Jones) -- I feel like we can be one of best pass-rush groups in the Mountain West."