Wideout Harris finds home away from home at Illinois

Spencer Harris left home because of Illini offensive coordinator Paul Petrino.

The sophomore wide receiver was recruited by Petrino at Arkansas and followed him to Champaign when he accepted his position at Illinois. When Petrino asked Harris to come with him, all it took was one phone call to lure the Arkansas native away from his home state.

“When he left he called me not too long after and let me know they were offering me a scholarship here,” Harris said. “I said, ‘I’m there.’”

Petrino always envisioned Harris as being capable of games like the one he had last Saturday against Northwestern. Harris caught six catches for 63 yards, including four catches and a two-point conversion reception on the fourth quarter drive that gave the Illini a 31-28 lead with 6:53 left in the game.

“You know, I think he’s really come along,” Petrino said. “He was making plays like that in Rantoul, and it was finally a game where we threw the ball a bunch, so he had a chance to make a lot of great plays in the game. He has great hands, got good football awareness and his high school coach was a great coach, Coach Jones in Arkansas.”

Harris won the 2007 5A State Championship at Greenwood High School in his sophomore year with current Razorbacks starting quarterback Tyler Wilson as his signal caller. After the championship season, Wilson graduated and went to Arkansas and Harris started attending Razorback summer camp to garner some recruiting attention. At Arkansas’ weeklong camp, Harris gained two summers worth of one-on-one coaching from Petrino.

“I guess I had two decent camps that went pretty well for me,” Harris said. “Me and Coach Petrino kind of grew in our relationship and we grew to like each other a lot. We stayed in touch through the recruiting process.”

Harris finished high school ranked fifth in the state of Arkansas for career receiving yards, sixth in career receptions and seventh in career touchdown catches. Petrino didn’t need to see numbers. He saw the potential for Harris in his great hands. While Petrino’s departure was reason enough to leave, Harris said it was a tough decision to decommit from Arkansas.

“A lot of my friends from high school, a lot of people that I know, are at Arkansas,” Harris said. “It was something good for me to get away. I would have lived an hour from home, and I kind of wanted to get out and try something different and be a little independent. I’m glad with my decision. I’m glad I came here.”

Harris doesn’t play football an hour from home. He plays 10 hours from home. But the distance doesn’t deter his parents from making every one of his home games.

“You know my mom was pretty emotional when I committed here because I’d be so far from home,” Harris said. “She knows I was in good hands. She knows (Petrino) is going to take care of me, and I can’t be more happy with my decision.”

Petrino has turned into a mentor for Harris. Every so often, he will call Harris into his office just to reiterate that his door is always open if Harris has anything he’d like to talk about. At the start of the season, Petrino told Harris it was time to step up and be a big play receiver. On Saturday, Harris stepped up when it mattered most — the fourth quarter. After the game, Petrino said he was proud of the way Harris played against the Wildcats.

“He’s a great character,” Petrino said. “He’s the kid you want to have your daughter date. They don’t come much better than him.”