Dwayne Harris delivers big plays for Dallas Cowboys

IRVING -- As a sixth-round pick who was cut from the team during his rookie season, Dallas Cowboys receiver Dwayne Harris understands being questioned as a player.

The second-year pro also understands the power of changing mindsets, which he's done the past two months while turning question marks into exclamation points during a breakthrough season as a punt returner and an emerging target in the Cowboys' offense.

"Whatever they need me to do, I think I can be a great player for this team and in this league. The sky's the limit," Harris said Friday. "I've always got... that chip on your shoulder to go out there and play your best. I let my game speak for itself. The doubters, they'll go away."

Harris has thinned the herd of doubters, both within and outside the organization, by becoming a major force as a punt returner since taking over that role from Dez Bryant on Nov. 4 against Atlanta. Heading into Sunday's game against New Orleans at Cowboys Stadium, he's averaged 13.9 yards per punt return, including a 78-yarder for a touchdown against Philadelphia and three additional efforts of 20 or more yards against Cleveland (20), Atlanta (37) and Pittsburgh (39).

Harris also has 15 receptions -- 15 more than last season -- and is coming off a four-catch, 46-yard performance in last week's 27-24 overtime victory over Pittsburgh. Three of his four grabs against the Steelers came on second-half touchdown drives, including two pivotal receptions on bubble screens: an 18-yarder on a second-and-23 play to extend one scoring drive, as well as a 17-yarder in the Steelers' red zone that set up a 3-yard touchdown run by DeMarco Murray.

"He's really grown a lot as a player," coach Jason Garrett said. "He's made some splash plays. But you don't want to be a flash player. You want to be a guy that's a consistent player. I think he's shown that over the last half of this season."

Safety Gerald Sensabaugh called Harris a player who is "becoming a major asset to our team. We need more guys like him."

That is a dramatic change from last season, when Harris -- a sixth-round pick from East Carolina -- was cut during October, then languished on the team's practice squad until being activated Dec. 14. He played in seven games and made a minimal contribution, then watched Kevin Ogletree emerge as the team's No. 3 receiver in training camp.

But Harris (5-foot-10, 200 pounds) has seen more passes headed his way in recent weeks. With Ogletree (illness) questionable for Sunday's game and Dez Bryant playing with a broken finger, Harris projects to have a bigger role in the offensive game plan to go along with his return duties. Unlike last season, he's comfortable with that opportunity because he understands his role: primary returner, emerging receiver.

"I'm feeling a lot more comfortable with the offense as the year's gone on," said Harris, who has averaged 14.2 yards per touch as a receiver and kick returner this season. "Everything seems normal with what I do with my assignments... Every time you touch the ball as a playmaker, you want to score. That's your mentality. I can make the big, home-run hits."

Harris' only NFL touchdown came on the 78-yard punt return against Philadelphia. It provided the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter of a 38-33 victory. But teammates envision some touchdown catches in his future.

"Having a guy like Dwayne who can come in there and give you the home run ball, that's big. That's a key to your team," Sensabaugh said. "He's always had good hands. He runs good routes. He wants to be great. It's good to see him getting his chance."

And silencing the doubters, which is big in Harris' eyes.

"Definitely," he said. "The more people that see me play, the more people are excited to see me on the field. I've always got something to prove."

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram