University at Buffalo defensive end Demone Harris never played organized football – never once even put on football pads – until his junior year of high school.
Four years later, his entire on-the-field game experience amounts to eight high school starts for Bishop Timon-St. Jude and a handful of plays in mop-up duty last season as a redshirt freshman for UB.
Yet Harris has worked his way from a walk-on to a scholarship player at UB and will be starting on the defensive line when the Bulls open their season Saturday against Albany.
“It’s amazing,” says UB coach Lance Leipold.
“God is good,” says Harris. “It’s not because of me. It’s just hard work, and I’m blessed.”
Harris’ rapid rise on the UB depth chart is a testament to his size and determination, along with the Bulls’ dearth of experienced defensive ends.
At 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds, Harris has exactly the kind of long-armed, rangy body that college recruiters covet in an edge-rushing prospect.
“He has the size you need,” said UB defensive line coach Tim Edwards. “Athletic. His ceiling is way up there. He’s young. His best days are ahead of him. Hopefully we can get some of those days this weekend and next weekend.”
Harris attended the Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School in ninth grade but wanted to transfer to Timon-St. Jude, where he saw more athletic options and better opportunities for college.
That meant a financial sacrifice for his mom, Ramona Sherry, who works as a housekeeper at Erie County Medical Center. She raised Demone and his three brothers as a single parent.
“I told her if she pays for me to go to high school, I’ll pay for me to go to college,” Harris said. “I had to beg and plead her, but it happened. It was definitely a sacrifice for her, but she saw I was passionate and she believed in me.”
Harris played basketball as a sophomore, then was talked into joining the football team by Timon-St. Jude coach Charlie Comerford.
“I saw Demone as this huge, striking kid, and you knew he’d be a good player eventually,” Comerford said. “He’s one of the best kids I ever coached. Never missed a lift, never missed a practice, never came late, ever. He literally got better every day.”
Harris played as a 225-pound stand-up defensive end for the Tigers and says his role was “go get the quarterback.” He was dominant as a senior but didn’t even make All-Catholic.
“I didn’t really play until the last two games my junior year because I was just learning the game,” he said, “then I missed four games my senior year because of an ankle sprain.”
UB’s director of player development, Greg Meyer, is Comerford’s brother-in -law. So Harris was on the Bulls’ radar as soon as his junior year ended.
“We saw a film of him after his senior year taking off from the foul line and dunking a basketball and said we’ve got to find a way to get this kid into our program,” Meyer said. “We made him a preferred walk-on.”
Harris added 45 pounds in his first year and a half at UB, and former head coach Jeff Quinn rewarded him with a scholarship last summer.
That’s a day Harris says he never will forget.
“I didn’t even make it out of the office,” he says, “before I called my mom and said, ‘Hey mom, they put me on scholarship. I told you this was going to happen!’ ”
Harris says he learned a lot from UB great Khalil Mack while sitting out in 2013. Harris worked hard with his coaches to improve his fundamentals this offseason.
“I’m better at playing against the run,” he says, “holding the edge, using my weight, using my long arms, understanding the natural pass rush game, understanding contain rushes and having contain responsibility.”
Few if any players in college football have had less game experience than Harris. Can he become an impact player as early as this season?
Leipold is hopeful and takes a long view.
“It goes back to what we’ve said about recruiting New York State players,” Leipold said. “There’s so much upside. You look at his growth potential. He’s 275. Who knows what he can be another year from now weight-wise? There’s a lot of flexibility he gives us as he continues to embrace the game of football.”
Harris can’t wait for Saturday.
“It’s very exciting,” he said. “I’ve worked extremely hard. I owe it all to my family, where I come from, and I use that as my strength to push through every day.”