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COLUMN

Harnish prepping for NFL chance

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TV: East-West Shrine Game, 4 p.m. Saturday on NFL Network

For more on local sports, follow Reggie Hayes on Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1

Don't bet against former Norwell QB

Friday, January 20, 2012 - 4:40 am

The surest way for Chandler Harnish to reach the NFL would be for someone to step up and tell him he can't do it.

Every time Harnish is doubted – by college scouts way back in his days at Norwell High School, by his college coach at Northern Illinois, by doctors after a devastating knee injury, by reporters or anyone else with an uninformed opinion – he proves them wrong.

Don't worry. The pro skeptics are up for the challenge.

“I have a lot of great opportunities to get my name out there and show what I can do,” Harnish said. “A lot of people don't think I can drop back under center and make the deeper throws. But I just have to show the right people in the right places.”

He'll get that chance, starting with the East-West Shrine Game at 4 p.m. Saturday (on NFL Network) in St. Petersburg, Fla. From there, it's on to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis on Feb. 22. After that, there's a Pro Day for Northern Illinois players seeking NFL attention.

Harnish has been proving doubters wrong since the day he decided to go to Northern Illinois after the bigger-name schools (i.e. Purdue) decided he wouldn't thrive as a college quarterback.

Here's a short list of evidence he proved those early doubters wrong: He owns or shares 24 Northern Illinois records. He got the Mid-American Conference's Vern Smith Leadership Award for player of the year. His total offense this past season ranked third in the nation behind Houston's Case Keenum and Baylor's Robert Griffin III. He led the nation's quarterbacks in rushing at 106.3 yards per game.

Harnish is one of only 10 quarterbacks in major-college history to rush for 1,000 yards and pass for 2,000 yards in a season. If not for an ankle injury early in the GoDaddy.com bowl, he could have become the first quarterback ever to rush for 1,500 and pass for 3,000.

About that injury. He severely sprained his ankle early in the Jan. 8 win over Arkansas State. He missed a series, then came sprinting back out of the locker room. He finished 18-of-36 passing for 274 yards and two touchdowns in the 38-20 win.

Doubters don't keep Harnish down. It would have taken more than a sprained ankle to keep him out of his final college game.

“That wasn't about to happen,” Harnish said.

After the game, Harnish signed with an agent, headed to Naples, Fla., and began working out with Colts offensive lineman Ryan Diem (a Northern Illinois grad) and others to prepare for his run at the NFL. Harnish already has his undergraduate degree, and plans to finish his MBA when he can. “Hopefully, it'll be 10 years into the future,” he said.

NFL Draft Scout, an online service, ranks Harnish as the No.9 quarterback in the draft, projecting him as a fourth- or fifth-round pick. Stanford's Andrew Luck is No.1, Griffin No.2. Harnish is a spot above Wisconsin's Russell Wilson.

Harnish believes his biggest challenge leading up to the draft is proving he can operate under center after spending his college days as a shotgun quarterback.

“I have to show, first and foremost, that I can get under center and take that three-, five-, seven-step drop and throw downfield 25 to 40 yards,” he said. “I have to show I can make crisp throws, have good arm velocity and, along with that, show my weight transfer. A lot of throws in college were off my back foot.”

Harnish might be a right-handed version of Tim Tebow, in terms of his running threat, but he's a better passer with stronger mechanics.

Harnish laughed about the Tebow comparison. Like Tebow, Harnish is also highly intelligent. He was a William V. Campbell Trophy finalist, earning an $18,000 post-graduate scholarship. Also like Tebow, he remains humble, talking about team first in every interview.

“Throwing on the run can be a pretty big asset for me,” Harnish said. “That's an advantage I hold over a lot of quarterbacks. Playing in the shotgun my whole career brings a lot of doubt to a lot of people. I have to show I can be smooth under center.”

Harnish wanted to play quarterback at Purdue coming out Norwell, after leading the Knights to the Class 3A state runnerup title. But the Boilers weren't interested. Few schools were. In fact, Norwell assistant coach Tom Neuenschwander often tells the story of how Bishop Luers coach Matt Lindsay put in a good word for Harnish with then-Northern Illinois assistant (and Luers grad) Thomas Hammock, suggesting that Harnish could be a steal for the school.

Harnish was a steal. He came in playing well and when a knee injury inexplicably stole his starting job as a junior, he took it right back after one game through sheer will and competitive spirit. He ended up leading Northern Illinois' senior class to the most collective wins in school history.

“I never thought of myself as an NFL player my first couple of years, then things started to go well for our team and myself individually and I started to think about it more and more,” Harnish said. “After last season, I started getting calls and interest from NFL agents and I got to thinking about it.

“It's been a whirlwind from there,” he said. “It grew and grew and my stock kept rising even during the spring when I wasn't doing anything. That was crazy to me.”

Many NFL teams, including the Indianapolis Colts, attended and scouted Harnish's games. The Washington Redskins had a scout, in fact, at a win over Ball State when Harnish turned in a record 519-yard performance (338 passing, 181 rushing).

Harnish feels mentally prepared for the NFL challenge. He knows there have been many examples of MAC quarterbacks who earned NFL starting jobs (Ben Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich, Chad Pennington, etc.).

“The more I've learned about the business, talking with agents and NFL personnel and coaches, the more comfortable it's become for me,” he said. “I just look at it as another challenge in life.”

Harnish will continue to face skeptics who question whether he has the goods for the NFL.

Those of us who have watched him the last few years have no doubts at all.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. E-mail Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com