The first time Mike Harley suited up for the Miami Hurricanes, he was one of the first players out on the field at Hard Rock Stadium. The wide receiver was a highly touted recruit coming out of Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas and he took the field as a starter against the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats in 2017.
He started again the next week and then three more times throughout his freshman season, and then four times as a sophomore in 2018 and still he never found the end zone — until Saturday, coincidentally in a 63-0 rout of Bethune-Cookman.
“It was a blessing. I was ready for it since my freshman year,” Harley said Tuesday in Coral Gables. “It was just God’s timing. It was my time at the moment, but I was planning for it my freshman year when I first got on campus. It’s just learning how to finish every time I catch a ball.”
The junior caught a screen pass near the right sideline, wiggled past one defender, stiff-armed another and turned on the jets. Of course it was against an FCS opponent, but Harley jetted into the end zone with the sort of dynamic speed Miami (1-2) expected him to bring when he signed with the hometown team as a U.S. Army All-American in the Class of 2017.
Two of the four best games of his career have come in the past two weeks. In a loss to the North Carolina Tar Heels on Sept. 7, Harley caught five passes for a career-high 79 yards to lead Miami. On Saturday, he caught three more passes for 49 yards — the fourth-highest total of his career — and his first career touchdown.
Although he has not yet started a game this season, Harley trails only K.J. Osborn in receiving yards among wide receivers.
“That was very special,” said cornerback Al Blades Jr., who was high school teammates with Harley. “Mike is very humble. He’s been waiting a long time. He never complains. He does what he’s got to do every week. You finally see his best is coming. You can see it on his face and reaction during the game.”
Harley knew this offseason he couldn’t waste anymore time. All those starts hadn’t amounted to much production beyond his reputation as one of the most physical blockers in the wide receivers corps.
As a freshman, he finished the season with 91 yards and had only one game with multiple catches. As a sophomore, his receiving yards ticked up to 240, buoyed by a pair of 70-yard games against North Carolina and the FIU Panthers.
Through three games as a junior, Harley already has 140 yards on a team without any 200-yard receiver so far.
“I have to take that step,” Harley said he thought throughout the offseason. “I have no more time to waste. I’m maturing. I have my confidence. I’m trying to be a leader on and off the field. I’m trying to be that No. 1 guy in the receiver group.”
The 5-foot-9, 180-pound receiver is noticeably faster after spending the summer working with new strength and conditioning coach David Feeley. He also said he’s better at making catches in traffic than he was early in his career.
The two improved skills came together in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, earlier this month. His longest reception of the season was a 38-yard grab in the loss to the Tar Heels after he got behind the defense and had to come back to the ball to catch an underthrown pass by quarterback Jarren Williams at the goal line.
Now he has strung together big plays in back-to-back weeks, and another game in Miami Gardens against the Central Michigan Chippewas on Saturday is a perfect chance to make it three in a row.
With Williams, he might have found his perfect counterpart, too. The redshirt freshman has been content to primarily throw short passes and let his skill players handle the rest. The style is a perfect fit for Harley to showcase everything he does best.
“It’s just the opportunity,” Harley said. “You see the offense, everyone gets the ball. Jarren does a great job spreading the ball, so everyone leaves the field happy.”