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April 28, 2017

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — The relationship University of Virginia linebacker Malcolm Cook forged with head coach Bronco Mendenhall while sitting out last season has been well-chronicled.

Cook, who was sidelined with a heart condition, assisted Mendenhall during practices and games.

Mendenhall, also the Cavaliers’ defensive coordinator, did not work as closely with cornerback Tim Harris, who missed the final 10 games of the season with a shoulder injury. And so, while Mendenhall saw Cook’s football knowledge growing throughout the fall, he had a different perspective on Harris.

“I didn’t know how much he was progressing while the season was going on,” Mendenhall said Wednesday.

And now? In watching his team’s winter workouts and spring practices, the Cavaliers’ second-year coach has seen another side of Harris, who’ll be a fifth-year senior in the fall.

“Wow, has he matured,” Mendenhall said, “meaning he’s much more physically resilient, physically tougher, with higher thresholds of pain tolerance, and more mentally tough.”

A graduate of Varina High School in the Richmond area, Harris is better able to handle bigger and harder workloads, Mendenhall said, while staying upbeat throughout the grind.

“Where a year ago, when we first got here, literally his threshold for fatigue and/or drama was really low,” Mendenhall said. “So in that part, he’s been remarkable to me in transforming himself into steady, durable and consistent. Because he’s already very fast and very tall and an excellent cover player.”

At 6-2, 205 pounds, with excellent speed, Harris has the physical attributes of an NFL cornerback, and he arrived at UVA in 2013 as a heralded recruit. But his production has yet to reach his potential, and he has only one more season at Virginia to change that.

Harris is projected to start in the secondary along with sophomore cornerback Bryce Hall, junior safety Juan Thornhill and senior safety Quin Blanding.

“In the back of your head, you know this is it,” Harris said, “but I’m just going to take it one day at a time and try to be the best player I can be each day.”

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, with seven starts, Harris hurt his left shoulder for the first time in 2014.

“I didn’t say anything to anybody, because it just popped in and out [out of the socket],” Harris recalled. “I was like, `It’s fine.’ “

He had no further problems until the seventh game of the 2015 season, when his shoulder popped out again after Harris collided with a North Carolina running back.

Harris missed the next two games but returned to finish the season. During training camp last year, however, he re-injured the shoulder, more severely this time. With limited range of motion, he resumed practicing and tried to play through the pain once the season began, but after two games Harris opted for surgery.

“We would have loved to have had him a year ago,” Mendenhall said of a season during which two other cornerbacks, Myles Robinson and Darious Latimore, suffered major injuries too.

The Wahoos finished 2-10 last fall, and Harris watched helplessly as the season progressed. As frustrating as that was for him, the timing of the injury made him eligible for a hardship waiver that gave him another year of eligibility.

“It’s definitely a blessing that it did happen when it happened,” Harris said, “and I got to come back this year fully healthy instead of going the whole season with a nagging injury.”

He’s a better, smarter player than he was last year, Harris said. “I felt like I learned a lot of stuff while I was injured, from knowing the defense to knowing what calls are going to be made for situations, different things like that, just from listening to Coach Mendenhall.”

Virginia’s annual Spring Football Festival is scheduled for Saturday at 3 p.m. at Scott Stadium. For the Cavaliers’ first 14 practices this spring, Harris wore a red jersey that designated him as a player who wasn’t cleared for full contact. He’s expected to be in red again Saturday, but he’s been able to do everything required of a cornerback this spring except tackle.

“If I was sitting on the sideline, I wouldn’t get the advantage of reps I’m getting when I’m in practice,” Harris said. “So I’m glad I got to at least use my feet and get my feet under me.”

That Harris had impressive physical tools, Mendenhall knew heading into his second year at UVA. “But his durability and consistency and resiliency, those things to me were things that needed to be addressed for him to be an exceptional player, and that’s I think what’s starting to happen,” Mendenhall said.

Harris has started 21 games as a Cavalier, some out of necessity. As a true freshman, he was pressed into a major role after injuries sidelined cornerbacks Demetrious Nicholson and Maurice Canady, one of Harris’ former Varina teammates.

Not surprisingly, there were rough moments for Harris. In UVA’s 59-10 to loss No. 9 Clemson at Scott Stadium in November 2013, he gave up two long touchdown receptions to Sammy Watkins, now an NFL wide receiver.

Being thrown into such situations “was nerve-wracking,” Harris said, “but as the years go along, you stop being nervous and you just try to go out there and be the best you can be.”

Virginia’s secondary coach is Nick Howell, who came east from BYU with Mendenhall after the 2015 season.

“I honestly think Coach Howell is one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around, just from an energy standpoint and a teaching standpoint,” Harris said. “He’s got a different style of teaching the players, whether it’s talking to us, whether it’s us writing it on the board, or whether it’s us teaching our teammates what to do. I think the drill work that we do with him is exceptional.”

For his career, Harris has recorded two interceptions, 14 pass breakups, and 82 tackles. More was expected of him at UVA, Harris knows, and he’s confident he can deliver in his final college season.

“I feel like people have seen flashes, but I don’t think people have seen what I really can do and what I plan on doing this year,” Harris said. “It’s God’s plan, but this year I’m going to make sure everybody knows.”

The key for him is staying healthy. Still, Harris said, he can’t worry about injuries.

“I just try to play to the best of my ability, but things are going to happen,” he said. “So whatever happens, happens. I’m going to just make sure I’m going hard every play and doing what I can do to help the team.”

Harris is living this school year with Cook, running back Taquan Mizzell and defensive lineman Donte Wilkins. His roommates in the fall will be wide receiver Doni Dowling and safety Quin Blanding.

Like Harris, Dowling graduated from Varina High.

“We’ve been on the same football teams since we were like 6 years old,” Harris said. “It’s good to have him around.”

An anthropology major, Harris is less than a month from graduation. He’s looking forward to Final Exercises on the Lawn.

“It’s going to be fun, just to have my family here. It’s a big thing,” Harris said.

“Honestly, I just can’t wait to take my degree back to where I’m from. A lot of people don’t finish what they started. I set a goal for my mom, that I was going to finish school. I’m proud of that. I can’t wait to show her that.”

SPECIAL OPPORTUNITY: As in years past, the UVA athletics equipment staff will be selling authentic game-worn jerseys and helmets before the Spring Football Festival. Helmets will be available for $100 and jerseys for $50 apiece Saturday. Cheer uniforms are $35 and pom poms $10 each.

All jerseys and helmets are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Cash and credit cards, but not checks, will be accepted as payment.

The sale will begin when Scott Stadium’s gates open at 1 p.m. It will be held behind the scoreboard at the open end of the stadium.

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