PITTSBURGH — Demone Harris will never forget how he got to the NFL. And he will never settle just for being in the NFL.
The former University at Buffalo linebacker is in his second training camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Harris, a 2013 Bishop Timon-St. Jude graduate, has already seen a change in his on-field demeanor as he plays for a spot on the 53-man roster.
“I’m definitely more calm during games,” Harris said Friday at Heinz Field, after the Buccaneers’ 30-28 preseason loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. “You get those rookie jitters, but the second year in, you’re calm, you’re relaxed. I let the game come to me now. I pick my spots and try to make plays, whether it’s on special teams or getting where I fit in on defense.”
The 23-year-old signed with the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent out of UB in April 2018, and returned to Tampa Bay after he signed a futures contract in December. Harris registered a tackle and a quarterback hurry for the Buccaneers Friday in a loss to the Steelers.
Yet Harris was never gifted opportunities in football.
He didn’t play in his first game until the 11th grade at Timon, and joined the UB football team as a walk-on after starting just eight games in high school.
After redshirting in his first season and playing sparingly in his second, he became a three-year starter for the Bulls and had 55 tackles, five sacks and seven quarterback hurries as a senior in 2017. That season, he was nominated for the 2017 Burlsworth Trophy, given to the most outstanding football player in the nation who began his career as a walk-on.
Though he was undrafted, Harris had solidified himself as an NFL prospect by running 4.77 seconds in the 40-yard dash at UB's Pro Day. Among those watching that day was Buccaneers scout Andre Forde, a former UB receiver.
While Harris had offers from the New York Giants, Denver Broncos and Detroit Lions along with the Bucs, he thought Tampa Bay would be the best fit.
He arrived in the NFL grateful for the opportunity with a self-described chip on his shoulder, much like he arrived at UB.
Harris didn’t make Tampa Bay’s roster out of training camp last August, but was promoted to the active roster Oct. 10, after he spent the first five weeks of the regular season on the practice squad.
Harris played in two games last season before the Buccaneers placed him on waivers Nov. 16 to make room for Godwin Igwebuike, a safety who is now with the New York Jets.
Harris got a taste of life in the NFL, but also found out that players can become disposable, whether it’s due to roster changes or injuries, and that one’s time in the NFL can be fleeting.
“The NFL, your next day is never promised, so I never take this for granted,” Harris said. “I’m trying to go out and do my best, each and every day, and try to make plays.”
This year in Tampa Bay, he joins another UB player aiming to make an NFL roster, wide receiver Anthony Johnson. Johnson signed with the Buccaneers as a free agent in April. Johnson immediately turned to Harris for advice when he got to Tampa for training camp in July.
“It’s great for me, just to have a teammate here,” Johnson said. “It’s made it easier for me to get going and get ready to be a pro. When I got here, he helped me. He showed me everything, and he’s someone I will just go to. We were really close at Buffalo and he’s like a brother to me. Every time I have a question, I ask him.”
Friday in Pittsburgh, Harris' first defensive series with the Bucs was unremarkable. When Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph connected with Johnny Holton less than four minutes into the third quarter, Harris found himself sprinting behind the play, attempting to block players as Holton reached the Buccaneers’ 6-yard line. That set up Zach Gentry’s 3-yard touchdown catch two plays later, which gave the Steelers a 20-10 lead.
But about six minutes into the fourth quarter, Harris broke through the line and pressured Steelers quarterback Devlin Hodges as he threw away the ball.
Officially, Harris was credited with a quarterback hurry, but he wasn’t about to settle for one defensive statistic in his pursuit of an NFL roster spot.
“Just build on this,” Harris said of his preseason debut. “The next time I get a pressure, it’s going to be a sack. The next time, it can’t just be a sack. It’s got to be a strip sack. Just keep progressing, keep moving forward.”