Rookie talent goes deep, grabs early spotlight Harrison, Johnson lead bumper crop of receivers making sudden impact


Marvin Harrison got the word 19 picks into the draft. The Indianapolis Colts were on the clock and on the phone. Their message to the ultra-quick wide receiver from Syracuse was succinct.

Don't be late.

This was last April, when the Colts coveted a big-play receiver who could turn a defense around. It was a draft rich in talented wide receivers, one of the richest ever, and three already had been selected when the Colts, with the 19th pick, closed in on Harrison.

"You get 15 minutes on the clock when you can talk to the kid and let him know your intentions," said Bill Tobin, director of football operations for Indianapolis. "We said we expected him to be on time, that we weren't interested in any kind of holdout. We didn't want anything that would disrupt team chemistry.

"Regardless of what they say, when they come in late, they cannot help you."

Harrison missed by only a day. He signed May 6, one day after rookies reported to training camp. Now, two weeks into the regular season, he's leading a very promising class of rookie receivers.

The first rookie to start on opening day in a two-wide receiver set for the Colts since Ray Butler in 1980, Harrison has generated 222 yards in two games -- 120 on eight receptions and 102 on six punt returns.

His 35-yard touchdown catch that beat Arizona's Pro Bowl cornerback Aeneas Williams in the opener supplied the winning points in a 20-13 victory. After he returned five punts for 102 yards in a 21-7 win over the New York Jets last Sunday, Harrison was named the AFC's Special Teams Player of the Week.

On a team that desperately needed a deep threat, Harrison has made a sudden and dramatic impact.

"I didn't know if it would be early or later," Harrison said, "but I expected to come in and make things happen for this team. I had all the confidence I'd come in here and make something happen."

That's what four other teams were looking for, too, when they chose wide receivers in the first round last April. The position was so deep that a stunning total of 11 wide receivers were taken in the first two rounds.

"When you draft a guy in that position [the first round], he should have a pretty big impact," said Jimmy Robinson, receivers coach with the Colts. "You're trying to get him on the field as soon as possible."

The Class of '96 receivers already has made a noticeable impact. In addition to Harrison, other prominent contributors the first two weeks of the season included:

Keyshawn Johnson, Jets. The first pick in the draft hasn't started either of his first two NFL games, the only one of the five first-rounders who hasn't yet. He finally signed in early August (six years, $15 million) after a nasty round of contract negotiations. Still, Johnson has six receptions for 103 yards and orchestrated the NFL's wildest touchdown dance so far.

After he made an 11-yard catch in the end zone against the Colts on Sunday, he threw off his helmet and broke into a raucous celebration. Johnson, from USC, is expected to start Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.

Terry Glenn, New England Patriots. The seventh pick in the first round from Ohio State, Glenn drew attention for all the wrong reasons in training camp. He missed all four preseason games and the season opener with a hamstring pull. That prompted criticism from his coach, Bill Parcells, who at one point referred to Glenn as "she."

When Glenn finally hit the field last week, he did so with a flair. In a 17-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills, he led the Patriots with six catches for 76 yards. The highlight was a diving, 37-yard touchdown grab. Glenn landed on his stomach at the 1, along with a defender, and crawled into the end zone for the score.

Amani Toomer, New York Giants. A second-round pick from Michigan, Toomer has just one reception for 12 yards. But he has been terrific returning kicks, averaging an NFC-high 28.3 yards on punts and 18.4 on kickoffs. He returned a punt 87 yards for a touchdown in Week 1.

Muhsin Muhammad, Carolina Panthers. The second-round pick from Michigan State missed the opener with a shoulder injury, but made his debut last week with six catches for 96 yards against the New Orleans Saints.

Meanwhile, Eddie Kennison of the St. Louis Rams and Eric Moulds of the Bills, the other two first-round picks at wide receiver, are starters because of injury.

Kennison, the 18th pick, has four catches for 70 yards starting for Alexander Wright, who's on injured reserve. Moulds, the 24th pick, became Buffalo's starting slot receiver when Steve Tasker went down for six weeks.

"We threw a lot of things at the young man," Bills general manager John Butler said. "I'm sure bees were buzzing in his head.

"He's done everything we asked, though. For somebody we had to throw right into the fray when we thought he'd have a little time, he's really done a good job."

Bill Kuharich, general manager of the Saints, can't remember a ++ draft with this many quality receivers. He said the first 15 receivers, from Johnson to his own Mercury Hayes in the fifth round, "are on a different level."

"Usually there are four or five [top-notch] guys," Kuharich said. "Then it drops off."

What happened to produce this year's bumper crop?

"Offense in college is more pass-oriented and they're getting big, skilled athletes," Kuharich said. "These guys aren't smurfs."

Butler said college players are now better prepared for the NFL.

"The passing game is what everybody likes to see," he said. "And the coaching is just outstanding. People in college football are starting to show a lot different coverages, not just halves and deep thirds. The young men coming out to pro ball are well-coached on how to site-adjust, to see what defenses are doing to them."

Perhaps not surprisingly, three of the first-round selections came out early -- Glenn, Kennison and Moulds. But Johnson, after two years in junior college and two at Southern Cal, clearly was the head of the lot. At 6 feet 3 and 215 pounds, he was the first wide receiver chosen with the first overall pick since Irving Fryar of Nebraska, taken by the Patriots in 1984.

"Keyshawn is a big receiver with a small receiver's feet," Kuharich said. "He can catch the ball and elude people, then outrun you."

Nevertheless, the most productive receiver so far in this young season is Harrison, who admits he was miffed that he was the fourth receiver taken.

"I was a little upset," he said. "I did think I should have been picked a little higher. But by the same token, I'm going to learn from my experience. I want to prove something to myself and the people that didn't pick me."

The Colts were not unhappy over how the draft unfolded. "The one that was left was the one we liked," Tobin said.

Then Harrison confirmed the Colts' optimism in a minicamp appearance right after the draft.

"We found out right away he was going to be special," Robinson said. "He made some catches not seen around here, a couple of one-handed catches, and made them look easy. . . . After studying the guys in the draft, he was the most ready to come in and play."

And he's right on time in Indianapolis.

Pub Date: 9/13/96

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