Up to speed

CNJ staff photo: Kevin Wilson Eastern New Mexico sophomore quarterback J.J. Harp has led the Greyhounds to the top offense in NCAA, with 595.6 yards per game. Harp is averaging 518.8 yards of offense himself, also tops in college football.

By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer

PORTALES — J.J. Harp fell in love with the quarterback position when he was just a little kid in Texas. Lately, it’s looking like the feeling is mutual.

The Eastern New Mexico University sophomore has made a name for himself not just in Portales or the Lone Star Conference. The leader of the Greyhounds’ “Air Attack” offense has smashed team and Division II records, and ENMU has the country’s top offense, regardless of division, at 595.6 yards per game.

Harp, the 6-3, 185-pound gunslinger from Argyle, Texas, is responsible for 518.8 of those yards on average.

“My dad told me I wanted to be quarterback, and as a little kid, you want to do what your dad says,” Harp said. “I fell in love with it, getting the ball on every play.”

So far, he’s been effective. Harp already holds Division II single-game records for pass attempts (94) and passing yards (695), and he helped the Greyhounds (2-3) break a school scoring record in a 76-56 win over Texas A&M-Commerce two weeks ago.

Longtime ENMU offense coordinator Mike Howard laughed when he was told a 304-yard passing day, like Harp had in Saturday’s 44-33 loss against No. 2 Abilene Christian, would have been a career day in the Greyhounds’ old triple-option offense — not a disappointment like it was last weekend.

But, that’s the way football goes.

“It’s not really shocking,” Howard said. “Offense is going to go through changes over the years. We understood that we change as well.”

And that, Greyhound coach Mark Ribaudo said, is why they sought a player such as Harp. Ribaudo was excited when he saw Argyle had a quarterback who threw for 3,000 yards, was his district’s most valuable player, and grew up with the game as a coach’s kid (Jeff Harp is offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the 3A Eagles). Those kind of players, Ribaudo said, know how to lead an offense.

“In this offense,” Ribaudo said, “having a strong arm is good, but being able to distribute the ball where it needs to be is very important.”

Harp’s spread the ball around well so far. Jesse Poku leads Division II in receptions with 52, and Darian Dale is fourth with 34. Plus, freshman Chase Kyser’s pulled in 32 receptions and Harp said he’s looking forward to the return of sophomore Matt Handler. Handler is expected to rejoin the squad in Saturday’s homecoming game against Angelo State after missing early action with a shoulder injury.

“When we get out there, make a first down, another first down, defenses can’t hang with us,” Harp said. “It’s just a matter of if we can keep it up.”

Harp said dedication in the summer from the entire offense made a big difference in the team finding a rhythm, and coaches have Harp on a different type of workout. Howard said since Harp could throw the ball 80-90 times a game, the coaches went to Greyhound baseball coach Phil Clabaugh and created a training program in line with a starting pitcher.

But, whatever the workout, Howard said Harp has improved because he’s gotten used to the speed of college football and he knows how to “find the grass,” a team term for finding open spaces in the defense.

““He gets rid of the ball a whole lot quicker,” Howard said. “I don’t have a stopwatch, but I go, ‘One thousand ONE, one thousand TWO,’ and the ball is gone.”

With 2,606 yards passing through five games, Harp is on pace to pass Kevin Kott’s 1984 Greyhound record of 3,482 yards two Saturdays from now – and still have four games left. However, he’s more concerned with getting the Greyhounds back to .500 this weekend.

“It’s just an opportunity,” Harp said. “I don’t look at it as having a chance to break these records. I want to win; I’m tired of losing. We don’t deserve to lose; we’ve worked too hard.”