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N’Keal Harry preparing for bigger role in Sun Devil offense… and beyond

(AP Photo/Darren Abate)

TEMPE, Ariz. — When Sun Devils offensive coordinator Rob Likens looks at receiver N’Keal Harry, it feels like he is looking at himself.

“N’Keal is a very, very, very passionate player,” Likens said. “We’re like the same guy.”

Likens loves that passion, but he is still working at helping Harry channel it.

“I don’t have to play and he does, so he’s got to play the next play,” said Likens, who coached the receivers last season under Todd Graham. “He’s so competitive he can get caught up on the last play a little too long so we’re trying to work through that and get him a little more mature that way.”

Harry admits it is one of his greatest battles.

“A lot of the times I expect myself to make every play and I expect myself to do everything perfect so when I don’t do it perfectly, it gets to me a little bit,” he said. “I’ve made huge strides in my life controlling my emotions because when I was younger it used to be a lot worse, but it’s something I still need to work on and keep progressing.

“You’ve just got to forget everything that happened the play before. You can’t get too riled up, you can’t be too high, you can’t be too low. Coach Likens tells me to just forget about it and that’s something that really helped me last season.”

Harry burst onto the college scene in 2016. His 58 catches led all freshman receivers in the nation and he tied for fourth with five touchdowns while adding 659 yards. Last season, he was the lone Sun Devil named to the All-Pac-12 first-team. He finished second in the Pac-12 in receiving yards per game (87.8, 19th in the nation), including postseason, second in receiving yardage (1,142, 14th in the nation) and second in receptions (82, 15th in the nation), and he had eight TDs.

As the Sun Devils transition to a new offense under Herm Edwards, Likens wants Harry to take on a bigger role.

“I want to move him around,” Likens said. “I don’t want him to just sit over there at outside receiver. We did that some last year. I want to use him to take advantage of some matchups inside, possibly get him on safeties and guys that have a little less cover skills and let him work on those types of guys.”

To accomplish that, Likens needs Harry to familiarize himself with more plays and more techniques, but he also needs him to simply stay on the field.

“He’s a big-body kid and those kids just naturally fatigue faster than little guys,” Likens said. “Kyle Williams can run all day long. [N’Keal] may have three plays in a row where he can go full speed and then he needs a break. We’d like to get him up to five. That would be the next thing.”

Harry understands that conditioning is a major part of that equation, but so is his weight.

“It gets harder sometimes, especially when my weight fluctuates,” he said. “Sometimes, it gets hard to get out of my breaks. When I’m really heavy, when I’m 225 [pounds]-plus, it gets really hard after the second or third play so I have to watch everything I do, everything I eat.

“Between 215 and 220, that’s what I’m targeting. That’s where I still feel fast but I still feel big and I feel I can keep my strength.”

Aside from the goals his coaches have laid before him, Harry has goals of his own. He wants to takes on a more vocal role in leadership — something he acknowledges is not a personality trait — and he wants to become a better blocker.

“I want to open holes for my running backs and for my quarterbacks and my other receivers,” he said. “I feel like my athleticism speaks for itself and my ball skills speak for themselves, so taking another step as a blocker could really elevate me to that really elite level.”

More than a few analysts have wondered if that elite level will lead Harry to skip his senior season and turn pro. Harry isn’t in the mood to ponder that decision, even if many already view him as an NFL-caliber receiver and one of the marquee faces of Sun Devil football.

“I’m not giving much thought to it right now just because I’m so focused on the season and helping my team wins games,” he said, “but I think about it as a blessing. God only gives his toughest battles to his toughest soldiers. If I embrace it and make sure I’m staying level-headed and doing everything right, then I can be a great example and help elevate this team to a different level.

“I’m never too good to talk to somebody. I’m never too good to take advice from anybody. I have to make sure I’m level-headed, keeping my fire and that I keep progressing.”

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