Jonotthan Harrison has always played the role of a reliever.
The Jets center would like to prove he can be a full-time starter — an opportunity he thought he would have this season before being robbed of it a month before it started.
But Harrison didn’t get bitter. Instead, he stuck to what he was taught as a rookie by Matt Hasselbeck and Andrew Luck and stayed ready for his opportunity, which came by midseason — as it always seems to for the sixth-year pro — and the Jets have reaped the rewards.
“Jonotthan deserves a lot of credit, because when he wasn’t playing, he worked his tail off,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said as the Jets prepared to face the Bengals on Sunday. “He [stood] behind the quarterbacks, [made] the calls and [made] the Mike [linebacker] declarations. When his opportunity came back around, he was ready for it and he’s made the most of it.”
Harrison will start his fifth straight game Sunday in the middle of an offensive line that has settled into a groove protecting Sam Darnold to help turn the season around. He expected to have that opportunity for most of the offseason until the Jets suddenly signed veteran Pro Bowler Ryan Kalil out of retirement on Aug. 1. Kalil did not play at all in the preseason, stringing Harrison along even further as the center who played with the first team in games until Week 1 rolled around and Kalil was finally ready to go.
“A situation like that is never fun, but you know, when it comes up, there’s nothing you can really do about it except for just keep working, keep grinding and be ready for whenever your number is called,” said Harrison, who took over for the injured Kalil in Week 8. “I’m just like, you know what, I’m going to use this as an opportunity to work on my craft, understand the offense that much better, work on some of my techniques and just keep preparing as if I’m a starter because at some point, I’m gonna end up in the game.”
The 6-foot-4, 300-pound Harrison has been reminded of that every season of his NFL career, starting in the first quarter of his first preseason game as a rookie for the Colts in 2014. He wasn’t supposed to play until the fourth quarter, but when the starting center went down with an injury six plays in, Harrison got thrown into the fire.
It was then that Hasselbeck and Luck taught him to stay engaged in the game even if he was stuck on the sideline, advice that has served him well. Later in his rookie season, Harrison took over as the starter for 10 games. He started the final nine games of the year in 2015, four games in 2016, including the final three in 2016, and just once in 2017.
Then last season, Harrison started the final seven games (eight overall) after taking over for Spencer Long. The Jets cut Long in the offseason, making it Harrison’s job to lose until they signed Kalil.
But Kalil never panned out the way the Jets hoped he would, with the offensive line a mess early in the season. He started the first seven weeks then missed back-to-back games because of a knee injury that ultimately landed him on injured reserve.
“The whole situation was handled very maturely and everything like that,” Harrison said. “Instead of looking at the negative of the situation, I tried to focus on the positive — hey, let me learn from this guy.”
Harrison has been a luxury for the Jets, well-prepared from all the offseason reps to step right in without disarray. Darnold and coach Adam Gase have raved about his communication.
The reliever is thriving again. But Harrison is still hoping he will soon get a chance to be the starter from start to finish.
“That’s everyone’s goal in the NFL — you want to be a starter, you want to play ball. So that will always be my goal,” he said. “And yes, I hope one day to prove that I am a team’s starting center, and I would love for it to be here. I love the guys here and I’m gonna keep working until I accomplish that goal.”
Darnold practiced fully on Thursday despite being listed with a knee injury. He was running around and looked fine during the portion of practice open to the media. … CB Darryl Roberts (calf) was limited again but looks to be trending toward playing Sunday. … LB Brandon Copeland (hip/thumb) practiced fully after being limited Wednesday. … OT Chuma Edoga (knee) did not practice. … OT Kelvin Beachum (ankles) was limited, but is expected to play.
— Additional reporting by Brian Costello.