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Gators center Jonotthan Harrison has developed into one of Florida's most respected and important players.

Thursday September 26, 2013Central Figure: Jonotthan Harrison Has Played Key Role in Reshaping of Gators

Gators center Jonotthan Harrison has developed into one of Florida's most respected and important players.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – He plays a position that rarely gets noticed until something goes wrong.

Usually something like a penalty or when a snap bounces off the quarterback’s facemask and results in a turnover.

That happened to Gators starting center Jonotthan Harrison in the victory over Tennessee. Tyler Murphy said it wasn’t Harrison’s fault, but instead a problem with his cadence in calling for the snap.

It happens, especially when a new quarterback is working with a veteran center.

As the Gators move forward with Murphy the starting quarterback – he will make his first career start Saturday at Kentucky – they will lean on Mr. Reliable to lead the way.

A fifth-year senior, Harrison has quietly become one of Florida’s most important players. He is a team spokesman, steadfast thinker in the huddle, veteran leader and so much more.

“He’s probably one of the best I’ve ever been around. If we don’t have him … ’’ offensive coordinator Brent Pease said, stopping at that thought. “He might be the MVP of our team.”

Harrison has made 29 consecutive starts, more than double the next closest teammate, defensive back Jaylen Watkins (13 consecutive). He has played through injury, adjusted to changes around him -- and behind him -- and earned uniform respect from coaches and teammates for his play and attitude.

Mainly a byproduct of his position, Harrison doesn’t get as much attention in the media as many of his teammates.

In the locker room, different story.

Soon after Gators coach Will Muschamp arrived and started to shuffle pieces of the puzzle into different spots, Harrison moved to center. He had made his first career start – at guard – in the final game prior to Muschamp taking over, Florida’s win over Penn State in the Outback Bowl.

At his very first speaking-tour stop that spring of 2011 in Lakeland, Muschamp told the crowd why.

“He brings an element of toughness to our football team,’’ said Muschamp, whom at the time was on a mission to toughen up the Gators and put his stamp on the program.

There were plenty of lumps that first season, but in time Harrison found a home and developed into a rock along the offensive line.

“Him stepping in for Mike Pouncey -- a future Pro Bowler -- and really not have a drop-off says a lot about him,’’ senior receiver Trey Burton said. “That role is huge. He makes almost every call for the offensive line. He makes every call for the running backs.

“Having an experienced guy that knows all the different kind of blitzes and things a defense will bring in different looks, he helps out a lot with the younger guys.”

*****

That’s the way Harrison prefers it.

He wants to lead, not follow.

“I do enjoy the role,’’ Harrison said. “I was just always raised to be a leader, not a follower. That’s how my mom raised me. There is nothing wrong with being a follower, but certain people are cut out for certain positions. Whatever I do, I usually end up in some kind of leadership role. I have difficulty sitting back.”

Harrison took an eclectic route to his role as No. 72 for the Gators and already has a vision of what he wants to do after football.

“I’d like to be a forensics anthropologist,’’ he said. “I think it’s real interesting what they do and it’s a job that many people wouldn’t typically want to do.”

Harrison was born in South Florida to Jamaican parents. While he is in touch with his biological father, they are not close.

His mom, Jennifer, later married another man and Harrison said he has a strong relationship with his stepfather. However, despite coming from a big family, Jennifer only wanted one child. She works as a registered nurse in Groveland, the small central Florida town where the family settled when Harrison was in fifth grade.

“She said that’s how she wanted her life to be,’’ Harrison said. “She hoped she didn’t mess up with the one shot.”

Harrison made sure that didn’t happen,

As a kid, the 6-foot-3, 310-pound Harrison was always too big to play Pop Warner football in his small hometown. When he played sports, it was usually basketball or wrestling or pick-up football with neighborhood kids.

He got into roller blading and skateboarding until he grew too big to find roller blades that fit him. He also played hockey but retired after slicing his finger on a skate. He took karate lessons.

Music was his real passion before football.

Harrison played guitar in a band and traveled to New Orleans and New York for concerts as a jazz guitarist in seventh and eighth grade.

“It’s been a while since I played because football started taking over,’’ he said. “If there is a guitar around, I’ll pick it up and play a little something.”

Harrison’s door onto the football field was opened when Jennifer saw an ad in a newspaper. There was a new league forming with no weight limits.

“Let’s give this a shot,’’ she told him.

He showed up and was one of the youngest – and biggest – players on the field.

“A bunch of washed-up players really is what it was,’’ he said. “We didn’t score a touchdown the whole year. I got No. 44 and thought I was going to play fullback. I ended up playing O-line and D-line. It was a good way to break the ice.”

When high school rolled around Harrison made the team at South Lake High. One of his older teammates was former Gators running back Jeff Demps, now with the Tampa Bay Bucs.

Harrison started at center his very first game on varsity.

“I got destroyed the first three plays so my coach yanked me out,’’ he said. “I was a pretty late bloomer.”

*****

As Harrison grew and learned more about the game, his natural leadership tendencies emerged. He regained that starting center’s job and never let go. Recruited primarily by former Gators assistant Dan McCarney, Harrison opted to sign with the Gators over offers from Florida State, UCF, USF and Auburn among others.

When Pease took over the offense last season, he was Harrison’s third offensive coordinator in three years. Pease was impressed at how quickly Harrison grasped the concepts and the center’s responsibilities.

“He understood the run scheme,” Pease said. “He knows what defenses are trying to do. He is a kid who can see it all the way to the safeties, which is really almost like an NFL level. He wants to be good.

“There is so much communication involved [playing center]. You’ve got to have a kid who is willing to communicate, make calls, make adjustments, and see a lot of things. You’ve got to be smart. Jon has done that.”

The offense often feeds off Harrison’s enthusiasm.

“He is really passionate about what he does,’’ Burton said.

Harrison’s path to the center position at Florida followed the departures of Maurkice and Mike Pouncey. He saw an opportunity to get on the field and a challenge to diversify his potential at the next level.

He will occasionally contact the Pouncey brothers with a question in his quest to follow in their footsteps once again, this time to the NFL. According to NFLDraftScout.com, Harrison is one of the top centers available in the 2014 draft and is projected as a late-round pick that scouts are paying close attention to because of the Pouncey brothers’ success.

“Your football intelligence really increases when you play center. It has to or you won’t be successful,’’ Harrison said. “I’ll reach out to them with a question. And then they’ll shoot me back some feedback and I’ll give it a try. I just feel like they are a great resource, a great tool to have.”

The biggest challenge at first for Harrison was the primary job that comes with the position: snapping the ball to the quarterback. The adjustment was one he fought in the beginning.

The wrestling match almost ended with him not wanting to play the position.

“I was real frustrated,’’ he said. “There was a lot I needed to learn how to do and snapping was very difficult – being able to snap and block. There’s just a lot more on my plate when playing center than playing guard or even playing tackle. I realized I couldn’t give up on it -- there’s not many people that can play the position.”

At least not as well as Harrison has the last three seasons.

 

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