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Jackson's Marcus Harris quarterback first, safety second
Jackson's struggles on special teams during the middle of the season helped the Indians find a new defensive standout -- and it happened to be quarterback Marcus Harris.
After Farmington's Bryan Krause ripped through the Indians for two 80-yard-plus kick returns in the first half of a Jackson loss, Indians coach Van Hitt decided to begin from square one.
"He said we were going to find out who wanted to hit on kickoffs," Harris said. "We lined up and started to hit. I did all right in the drill, I guess, so they said, 'We're going to try you out on defense.'
"It kind of went downhill from there," Harris joked.
Harris has played seven games in the defensive secondary as a safety, and it's been a successful trial. The Indians (8-5) have won six of the seven in making their way back to the Class 5 semifinals. And Harris has snared a team-leading four interceptions, returning one for a touchdown. He also scored a touchdown on the return of a fumble recovery against Poplar Bluff in Week 7 for his first varsity touchdown.
"I've just been lucky to be in the right spot at the right time," Harris said. "At safety, you can kind of sit back and watch it all and see things develop. On that fumble recovery, Kevin [Pridemore] hit the guy and the ball bounced up in my hands. It could have been anybody. I just happened to be in the right spot."
But the fact Harris even is on the field defensively is unusual. He hadn't played there since junior high.
"In junior high, people don't pass a lot, so the safety doesn't do much," he said. "I was kind of the guy to take up space and, just in case, if they go deep, be there."
But with Jackson reeling at 2-4 this season and its hopes of a second consecutive SEMO North Conference crown gone with the 42-38 loss to Farmington, the Indians were looking for hitters. If anyone thought Harris was just the guy handing off the ball to Adam Zweigart, who also is pulling more two-way duty this season, he has gained some credibility with his defense.
"He doesn't back off from contact on defense," Hitt said. "I think he has gained a lot of respect because he will play defense and he will hit.
"It's one of those things that he's been protected all the way through because he's the quarterback and you don't want him to get hurt and have him in contact drills. But we were at a point of the season where it was time to get it turned around or it was going to be a bad year."
This group of Jackson players isn't used to bad years. Harris was the quarterback for junior high and freshman teams that were unbeaten in 2004 and 2005. And he was the quarterback for the junior varsity team that was perfect in 2006.
Last year, he stepped into a perfect situation again, as the Indians went 10-0 in the regular season and finished 11-1 after reaching the Class 5 semifinals. Harris played behind a veteran line, had two running backs to work with in Zweigart and then-senior Cody Randen and could throw to the region's top player in then-senior Matt Lang.
Harris passed for 796 yards, throwing for 12 touchdowns against eight interceptions as he eased into a leadership role.
"It took a while to gain respect," Harris said. "But after we started winning ... you just need your quarterback to be a leader, you don't have any choice."
Harris took it hard when the Indians came out slow in this season of high hopes, losing the opener and never topping .500 until the first playoff win.
"This year, we were young [in the offensive line], didn't have much experience and it took a while to get going," Harris said. "It seems like ever since Gateway Tech [in Week 3], we may not have won every game since then, but just in practice, we played a lot harder and hit a lot harder and you started to see it pay off in the games.
"It became more like Jackson football than the first three games. We got it back on track."
Harris has passed for just 522 yards and four touchdowns this year. He was 2 for 11 for 14 yards Saturday, and has averaged about 10 attempts per game this season.
For Jackson, opening up the offense would be considered Harris's 8-for-13 performance for 136 yards and three touchdowns in the regular-season finale against Central.
"Any quarterback loves to throw the ball," said Harris, who attends quarterback camps in the summer and would like to play on the college level somewhere. "But when it comes down to it right now, I'm more concerned with winning a state championship than how many yards I get in a game. I'd like to throw, but if we've got to run the ball 40 times a game and we come out 14-0, I don't have any problem with it."
Zweigart has been charged with running the ball almost 40 times a game on occasion and playing cornerback for the Indians, something he rarely did last year.
"He's an athlete," Harris said. "You put him in wherever and he's going to make plays. One thing they're not going to do is run by him."
Said Hitt: "Having those two on defense, with their abilities mentally and physically, has helped us a lot. Adam is a good cover man because he has the speed to cover their wide receivers, and Marcus is a good safety because he understands the offense and he understands routes.
"We've got to put our 11 best people on the field, offensively and defensively, because right now it's win or go home. As it turns out, Marcus is one of the 11 best hitters on the team."
And one of its most level-headed players -- after he burns off some of his energy by jumping through the paper teepee during the pregame introductions.
"I try to take most of the paper off that thing," Harris said.
"That's a high-profile position at quarterback," Hitt said. "Not every decision is perfect, but he does a pretty good job. Sometimes you want to get on him, but everything he does, he's doing 100 percent trying."