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Thursday, December 13, 2012
Harnish used to having chip on his shoulder

By Corey Griffin

The title of Mr. Irrelevant comes with certain privileges. Scores of interviews, a parade and a weekend in Newport Beach, Calif., await the final pick of the NFL draft. Landing on an NFL team's 53-man roster, however, is not among the privileges.

That takes the right mixture of luck, timing and skill -- luck to land in the right situation on the right team; timing and skill to make the most of the playing time a barely drafted rookie is afforded. But when you have to share reps with the No. 1 overall pick, an up-and-comer named Andrew Luck, suddenly standing out during the dog days of camp becomes a little tougher.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Chandler Harnish is used to overcoming perceptions. The kid from northeast Indiana was mostly ignored by schools in the BCS conferences. And despite a record-setting four-year career at Northern Illinois, scouts labeled Harnish as a run-first quarterback who was a late-round selection at best.

Anytime a player comes from a mid-major conference, you've been an underdog your whole life. You weren't recruited as much in college. You were always the underdog when you went to play the BCS school. You were never the favorite.

-- Chandler Harnish

Harnish has been living an underdog tale since he was 17.

"I think it's hard not to," Harnish said. "Anytime a player comes from a mid-major conference, you've been an underdog your whole life. You weren't recruited as much in college. You were always the underdog when you went to play the BCS school. You were never the favorite. So yeah, you just naturally have that chip on your shoulder coming through."

Harnish always felt he had something to prove, a trait he calls a blessing. It drove him to commit to Northern Illinois, to rehab a right knee injury after his sophomore season instead of electing for surgery. It drove Harnish to volunteer as a designated thrower at the scouting combine in February, just to show pro teams he had an NFL arm.

"He wanted to be good," former Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill said. "He just didn't want to be average, and that's what made him special and separated him out."

Kill, now the coach at Minnesota, didn't recruit Harnish. He came to Northern Illinois from Southern Illinois after Harnish's redshirt freshman year. Kill brought who he thought would be his starting quarterback with him from Southern Illinois.

It wasn't until after Harnish's junior year, after he rehabbed an injury that Kill says would have derailed most other players, that Kill saw that rare quality it takes to make it in the NFL.

"He came into his junior year, wasn't quite ready to go in the first game, and once we got him ready to go and put him back in, he never looked back," Kill said. "It seemed like each game he got better and better and better, and by the end of that year, you knew you had something special."

But special at Northern Illinois doesn't always translate at the next level. Despite progress in the quality of mid-major talent, the stigma that surrounds players from non-BCS schools can be a heavy fog to lift. So Harnish, who had been invited to the NFL combine, volunteered to throw hundreds of passes instead of the usual 10 to 12 required of a prospect.

"I thought just showing that I was willing to volunteer kind of proved my character as a person," said Harnish, whose reputation in scouting circles was more athlete than passer. "I'm a hard worker, and I don't care that I'm not getting all the notoriety and all those things. I just want to work hard and make the organization better, wherever I may have gone."

It was enough to impress the Colts, which drafted the native Hoosier without even meeting with him.

Now all Harnish had to do was get some reps in camp between rookie Luck and veteran backup Drew Stanton. It's a time, Harnish admits, that was filled with "a lot of down days." But he credits Luck with helping him through it.

"He's so heady. He's so smart. He understands the game so well," Harnish said. "That was something I think I definitely struggled with, to be honest, early on was just the ins and outs and identifying defenses and blitzes and things like that. And he was so good from the start. It's fun to learn from a guy like that and just pick up the habits that he has."

Harnish is complimentary of Luck, Stanton and quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen. He raves about the camaraderie in the meeting room and on the practice field. At no point did Harnish feel like an outsider. As far as he is concerned, he belongs in the meeting room and on that field.

"I definitely felt I belonged," Harnish said. "And I think by my play through OTAs and going into training camp and then even into the preseason, I felt like I deserved it, yeah. I'm a confident person -- not cocky, but definitely confident -- and you feel like I did what I had to do to make the roster."

Harnish was right. He survived final cuts as the Colts' third-string quarterback. It's a dream come true for most NFL hopefuls, but Harnish kept it in perspective.

"It was more just a monkey off my back. It was another goal, another stepping stone I accomplished," said Harnish, who has since been waived and re-signed to the practice squad. "There's still many more to go."