Corey Harris Jr. was expecting to be the go-to running back all year for Lake Wales High School following a cerebral and arduous approach to summer training.
But in the first game of the season against Zephyrhills, Harris, on a sweep play to the right, sprained his ankle after a defender put the weight of his body on his lower leg. Lake Wales head coach Tavaris Johnson took Harris out of the game, since the Highlanders already had the game well in hand.
It was a devastating turn of events for Harris, though Lake Wales would go on to shut out Zephyrhills 33-0, the first of six shutouts in 2022. Before Harris was injured, he rushed for 71 yards.
“It was stressful because I wanted to be out there playing with my team (and) and help them get the win they did, and I couldn’t,” Harris said.
Harris wasn’t healthy enough to execute the majority of the ball carries, as the senior didn’t have great lateral movement or cutting ability. Johnson had Harris play just defense as a strong safety, which wasn’t a problem as the Lake Wales native was accustomed to taking a lot of reps on the defensive side of the ball.
Johnson made an immediate impact through five games as solely a defensive player.
Fast-forward to a Class 3S regional semifinal game against Vanguard, and that defensive momentum carried over. Harris forced a fumble –- one of many big-time defensive plays –- which ultimately led to a 40-0 win. He also had numerous sacks that game.
“It’s just, play my role –- make the plays if I can, and trust in my teammates,” Harris said. “If the ball comes my way, make the play.”
Lake Wales fanatics had been seeing Harris excelling on defense and offense for five weeks. But Harris said he harked back to when he could finally make the necessary cuts to scamper up the field for a rushing touchdown.
“I really didn’t stress it too much about getting my role back, because I see it as just sharing the carries,” Harris said. “I help him, (Jordan Henderson) he helps me, so I just wanted both of us to do good really. I wanted to get my fair share of carries and do good with them. And I also wanted him to get some carries and to do good with them.”—
Still, it was Harris who was jumping off the screen when he got his first reps to carry the ball once more. In a game vs. Davenport, Harris gashed the defensive line, ran over a safety and traversed up the field for a 52-yard touchdown run. In the Vanguard game a few weeks ago, he ran for a 92-yard touchdown.
Those long runs have led Harris to be close to a 1,000-yard rusher through eight weeks as a primary running back. Right now, he has 809 yards and nine touchdowns. Henderson has rushed for 575 yards –- 347 yards coming in the first two games — and four touchdowns.
Harris gains advice from familiar face
Lake Wales’ leading rusher is a chip off the old block. In the early 1990s, Harris’ father, Corey Harris Sr., played football for the Highlanders.
As Harris was coming up playing for the Lake Wales Seahawks and Gators — two pee-wee football teams — his father often imparted invaluable advice that plays a pivotal role today in Lake Wales' No. 1 rusher.
“My dad, he played a big role on playing both (offense and defense), because he wanted me to just be an athlete, and be good at everything that I do,” Harris said. "…And when you are at that age, they want the best players on the field at all times — and I was just one of those kids, so I had to play both ways.
“…He told me that if I want to win, and play in the Super Bowl, I might have to play both ways, so I listen to him.”
This steadfast approach has led Harris in garnering 68 tackles, three sacks, an interception and one fumble recovery.
The production has helped Lake Wales vault to the top, advancing all the way to the state semifinal for the second time.
“It feels good because a lot of us have been together since we were little, so this is what the city has been talking about, so we just got to bring it home,” Harris said.
Lake Wales, the No. 1 seed, will take on Columbia, the No. 4 seed, at 7 p.m. Friday at Legion Field.
This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Lake Wales Corey Harris Jr. gashes teams despite early scare