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Justin Harrington feeling grateful after 'anxious' waiver process

NORMAN — It was an anxious few months for Justin Harrington.

Despite missing most of 2023 with a season-ending injury — the second such injury of his career — it was technically his sixth and final year of eligibility. But because he was injured, Harrington applied for a seventh year of eligibility from the NCAA.

While there was confidence Harrington would be granted the waiver and be able to return, he was unsure as the weeks dragged on.

“There’s a little feedback, but that’s why there was a lot of anxiety," Harrington said last week. "There was a lot of gray area, and I just didn’t know. I hadn’t been through that situation before, and I kind of leaned on Caleb Kelly, just being in here. Curtis Lofton, I talk to him and (OU coach Brent Venables). Those are different outlooks and different perspectives of how I should take my situation based on who they know I am and based on what my options are."

As Harrington waited during the offseason, and still recovering from his injury, he continued to go through workouts with OU strength and conditioning coach Jerry Schmit. Then last month, Venables announced the good news that Harrington's waiver had been granted.

“It was great news," Harrington said. "I had to wait for a little bit, just kind of anxious, a lot of anxiety built up just for my family. Just kept the main thing the main thing, kept praying and talking to my family and my coaches. I was just staying ready, whether it be get ready for the league or get ready for next year’s combine or get ready for next season. I was ready for either/or.”

It's great news for Harrington, but it's also great news for the Sooners.

Harrington appeared poised for his breakout season in 2023, which is what made the injury particularly disappointing. He earned the starting nod at the cheetah position and started the first two games of the season, playing 63 snaps in a close win over SMU in Week 2, per Pro Football Focus. He recorded four tackles and snagged a late interception to seal the win, which came after he suffered the ACL injury.

It was particularly tough for Harrington, who had already dealt with an ACL injury in his other knee earlier in his career. But he fought to stay motivated.

“I feel like it was more in earlier stages just getting up out of bed," Harrington said. "... I used to always tell myself, ‘Somebody’s counting on me. I gotta get up.’ Whether that be my teammates, whether that be my mom in North Carolina, somebody’s counting on me so I gotta get up. Me laying in the bed is not going to get me better. It’s not going to get me closer to where I want to be.

"So, just making sure like that was kind of what pushed me, my family, my motivation and my motivation for myself is to have success in playing football again.”

He learned a lot while the Sooners went through last season, when they won 10 of 13 games. Now, he's a veteran returner on a team that has a lot of players coming back.

Harrington projects to be the veteran amidst a crowded group at the cheetah position. In addition to Dasan McCullough, who took the bulk of the reps with Harrington out last season, Samuel Omosigho, Kendel Dolby, Peyton Bowen and several others are seeing time there during spring practices. He’s assumed more of a leadership role in the spring as the Sooners look to develop more depth at that position.

He's getting close to a full recovery, but Harrington and the coaching staff is being cautious with his participation in spring drills.

“Oh, it’s great. The training staff and the coaching staff are just taking it slow with me because just being a starter and being a guy to be counted on, you don’t want to make a small mistake with it being spring ball," Harrington said. "Not to say spring ball is not important, but having had those reps and having those spring ball reps, it’s more of a liability and just becomes a risk for the team, the defense, myself in my personal situation too. So, they’re just taking it kind of slow, but it feels great. I’m in great shape. Just ready.”

There's still a path of recovery for Harrington as the Sooners continue spring ball and head into the summer. But he's confident he'll be ready to be back on the field and make the most of his seventh and final season.

“I know I’ll have some hiccups but I know my competitive nature is not going to allow me to keep losing," Harrington said. "We've got a hell of a receiver group and I’m waiting to go at them just because I know it’s going to make them better, I know it’s going to make me better, just as a competitor. They’re brought in for production and I’m brought in to stop their production, that’s just my job.

"Our team is coming together and it feels good. It’s making us confident all around.”

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