Two receivers from Mercer trying to make big-league jump with Vikings

Devron Harper was talking to best friend Ty James and some nosey old journalist he had just met about growing up as a chronic jumper in a vertically challenged body.

The conversation seemed only fitting considering the sizable leap Harper and James are attempting together in Minnesota as undrafted rookie receivers from Mercer University, an FCS school in Macon, Ga., about 70 miles from where they grew up in Conyers, Ga.

"I was always walking around the house jumping up and touching the ceiling," Harper said. "Then I really got into jumping over things. All kinds of things."

The nosey old journalist (NOJ) nodded but was politely skeptical of Harper's bio, which states that he won back-to-back Georgia 6A state high jump titles by clearing 6-8 each year at Heritage High. He also finished second in the long jump.

"What are you? Five-foot-seven?" asked the NOJ.

"Five-foot-eight! And why you got to do me like that?!" said the personable Harper, faking some anger. (And, actually, the Vikings list him at 5-9, so even Dev was short-changing his official NFL stature.)

James is 6-2 and 200 pounds. He vouched for Harper's hops in high school. James competed against him while at nearby Greater Atlanta Christian School.

"Dev for sure was the shortest high jumper at every meet," said James, whose personal best was 6-7. "But the first time I saw him jump, I was like, 'Dang!' "

Mercer dropped football in 1942 and didn't pick it up again until 2013. Since then, only three Bears have signed with NFL teams: Guard Jason Poe, who's now with the Eagles after practice squad stints with the 49ers and Jets from 2022 to '23; and the two new Vikings.

Vikings scout Steve Sabo covers the southeastern part of the country. He laid eyes on Harper and James first. His words worked their way up to Vice President of Football Operations Demitrius Washington and out to the team's analytics department and coaching staff, including receivers coach Keenan McCardell and special teams coordinator Matt Daniels.

"Same position, but they bring different skill sets," Washington said. "They pinged with us for different reasons. Devron is the smaller, quicker guy. More of a slot, inside guy, with return ability. Ty is strong off the ball, has good hands. An outside guy."

Harper started out at Gardner-Webb before transferring to Mercer for his last three seasons. He set Mercer's career all-purpose yardage record (4,358) while scoring 23 touchdowns rushing, receiving and returning. James transferred to Mercer after a redshirt year at Georgia and left with a school-record 3,364 receiving yards on 171 catches, including a 351-yard, 13-catch game against Samford in 2022.

"That Samford game, Ty looked like a guy who got knocked out or something," Harper said. "He was in the zone. Seeing nothing, hearing nothing. Just going to a whole new level."

Hoops and hops

Harper was one of Heritage High's best basketball players before quitting to focus on football and track. Asked by the NOJ if he could dunk a basketball, Harper reacted as if someone had asked him if he could breathe.

James stepped in to confirm.

"You should have seen him dunk in intramurals at Mercer," James said.

James also played basketball in high school.

"Only until I could dunk in a game; then I quit," James said. "I did dunk a ball in eighth grade, but I needed one in a game for it to count. My sophomore year, I dunked and told the coach, 'I'm done.' "

That's when James' focus locked on football.

"I'd be out running routes for hours all year, never getting tired, with a smile on my face," James said. "This is what I want to do for a living."

Harper's initial attraction to track was to stay in shape for football. And to satisfy his legs' incessant need to jump.

"Someone told me the high jump had a cushion on the other side of the bar," Harper said. "So I jumped over the bar."

Eddie Snell, Harper's track coach, called him "a bouncy kid that was underestimated."

"We get to the state championship his junior year and every other kid in the competition is 6-4, 6-5, 6-6," Snell said. "And here's Devron, all 5-foot-8 of him."

Snell used to tell Harper five things: 1. Arch your back; 2. Squeeze your butt; 3. Rotate your shoulders; 4. Click your heels; and last, but not least, 5. "If you do what I tell you, you'll be the tallest person on the winner's podium when it's over."

Harper also won a state championship in baseball shortly after his high jump title his senior year.

"I was a pinch-runner," he said.

"How many bases did you steal?" asked James, unaware of Harper's baseball career.

"None," Harper said.

"How did you do in the championship game?" the NOJ asked.

"OK, let me set the record straight," Harper said. "I never saw the field. I practiced. I was a pinch runner who never actually pinch ran in a game. I mostly sat in the dugout and ate bubble gum."

That's not entirely true, said Shane Ramsey, Heritage's baseball coach at the time. Harper offered some intangibles.

"You have to know who Devron is as a person to know how he ended up on that team," Ramsey said. "The kid epitomizes winning in everything he does. I just wanted Devron's personality around my guys."

Late that season, Ramsey asked Snell if he could share Harper with the baseball team. Ramsey still has a photo of the team's on-field celebration that year. Everyone is wearing a baseball uniform jersey except for Harper, who is in a pink T-shirt.

"It's the third game of a three-game series and we're two hours from home, and my leadoff hitter comes to me and says, 'Coach, I forgot my jersey,' " Ramsey said. "Now, I have a rule that if you forget your jersey, you can't play. Well, I told the kid, 'I'm going to change the rule, but you need to find a jersey.'

"Devron stands up, looks at me and says, 'I got you, coach. He can wear mine.' "

Fast friends

Harper and James became close friends at Mercer. They remembered competing against each other in high school but didn't realize they grew up about 20 minutes from each other.

"In 2021, they were both playing split end, so they weren't on the field together much," said Drew Cronic, the Mercer head coach who left after last season to become Navy's offensive coordinator.

"In 2022, we changed our offense to get them both on the field at the same time. Sometimes, they'd be on the same side of the field. Teams couldn't key on one of them."

Today, the bar has been raised considerably for the two Mercer Bears. They were talking to that nosey old journalist on the first day of rookie minicamp in early May. They were asked to dream a bit as they looked up at the Vikings' behemoth TCO Performance Center.

Harper has the better chance of sticking, considering his return ability, but James did have other offers for his talents before turning down the Ravens to join his best friend in Minnesota.

"We've never been in Minnesota," James said. "If we make the team, the first thing we're doing is going to Macy's and getting us as many coats as we can. That's the dream."