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Clay Harbor will make his NFL debut at wide receiver, which he played in high school and some in college, on Thursday. (AP)
He was a wide receiver in high school. He began his college career as a wide receiver. And now Clay Harbor is a wide receiver once again.
In one of the more improbable storylines of the 2013 preseason, Harbor, the fourth-year tight end, isn’t a fourth-year tight end anymore.
“I’m open to it,” Harbor said. “The more you can do, the more reps you can get, just makes you more valuable as a player.”
This actually could be a good thing for Harbor. If Chip Kelly didn’t want Harbor around, he’d just cut him or relegate him to fourth-team tight end reps. By taking time to give him reps as a hybrid tight end/wide receiver, it shows that Harbor has some skills the Eagles like. They’re just trying to find the best way to use them.
And with Brent Celek, Zach Ertz and James Casey at tight end, Harbor wasn’t going to get a whole lot of reps anyway.
At a wide receiver spot missing Jeremy Maclin and Arrelious Benn, he’ll get work.
“It’s just a matter of learning a few more of the route concepts,” said Harbor, who had three catches for 47 yards in the preseason opener against the Patriots, despite playing just 14 snaps.
“You have to know where you are everywhere on the field. But basically, as a tight end, there are a [limited] number of routes where we know we can be outside on. But when you’re outside [as a wide receiver] you have to know all of them.
“I was good on those routes. I just had to go back and study a little more. [Sunday] was really my first night getting in the playbook and being able to look at that because it was the first night I knew that I was a receiver.
“So I came out here [Monday] and had a much better day than I did [Sunday]. You’ve got to be a lot more technical on your routes than when you’re working inside.”
Harbor, now 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, was recruited to Southwest Missouri State as a 215-pound wide receiver out of Dwight High School in Illinois, about an hour southwest of Chicago.
He spent a red-shirt year as a wide receiver and didn’t convert to tight end until the second game of his second season, when a couple tight ends got hurt.
“They came up to me and said, ‘Clay, you’re our biggest receiver, we’re going to need you to play tight end.’ It was going into our one big game of the year. It was against Oklahoma State. Three days before the game, I moved to tight end. Played there, had a couple of catches, had some success. Played both the rest of the year. Then my sophomore season they moved me to tight end permanently.
“At first, I didn’t like the transition to tight end, knowing that I had to block people and hit those big guys. But I got used to it and I love the position now.”
Harbor has been a decent backup tight end the past few years, going from nine catches in 2010 to 13 in 2011 to 25 last year.
On Thursday night, he’ll make his debut at wide receiver against the Panthers at the Linc.
“I feel I can use my size and strength to my advantage,” he said. “I might deceive a couple of the cornerbacks who think I’m a typical tight end who runs a 4.7 40-yard dash. I think it’ll be good. I’m going to get a couple of games out there and see how it goes.
“I think I could be a guy who does both. You can only dress 46 on Sunday. If we dress four receivers and three tight ends and somebody gets nicked up, I’m ready to go, I can play either one. I think that’s what their thinking is.
“I’m getting familiar with it. I know all of the tight end and ‘A’ stuff, the slot stuff. Now I’m getting familiar with the wideout stuff so I can do both.”
Harbor is a decent blocker on the line of scrimmage for a tight end, but the type of blocking he’ll be asked to do as a receiver is totally different.
And that might be the biggest challenge for him as he moves forward at his new position.
“The only similarity there is, it’s still called blocking,” he said. “At wide receiver, those DBs are so quick. You can’t go charging at a defensive back. He’s going to move out of the way. You can’t go in too hot. You can’t go in too slow. You have to burst, settle and then you trigger when they trigger.
“There’s a science to it just like blocking on the line. You don’t have to be as concerned about coming hard and being physical. You have to be patient, and when you get inside, you get your hands in on him and you can’t let him go.”
Ultimately, Harbor’s performance on special teams will probably have a lot to do with whether he survives final roster cuts.
One thing is certain. Kelly is trying to be creative in how he uses his personnel. He had Harbor doing some individual drills at linebacker in the spring and Jason Avant getting some work at safety. Trent Cole and Brandon Graham are trying to convert from defensive end to linebacker in Billy Davis’s 3-4 scheme.
And, at least for now, Harbor has become a wide receiver.
“I’m strictly with the wideouts right now,” he said. “I’m meeting with the wideouts. I’m practicing with the wideouts. I still remember everything about the tight end position, though.”