Hawaii running back and kick returner Paul Harris had $200, a highlights tape and not much else when he arrived in southern California to play junior-college football in the summer of 2013. The football dreams of the scrappy kid from Columbus were fading.

Hawaii running back and kick returner Paul Harris had $200, a highlights tape and not much else when he arrived in southern California to play junior-college football in the summer of 2013.

The football dreams of the scrappy kid from Columbus were fading. His career was on its last legs, the victim of classroom struggles, the folding of a program and a load of student debt.

But Harris, a 2011 Marion-Franklin graduate, still had hope. That tape had made its way to Steve Mooshagian, a former Cincinnati Bengals assistant who ran the program at Ventura Junior College and is an old friend of Hawaii coach Norm Chow.

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Come on out, Mooshagian had said.

Harris was back home in Columbus, working temp jobs in warehouses. He had been fired. A family friend had given him $400. He spent half of it on a bus ticket.

Harris did not know that Greyhound ride would eventually lead him halfway across the Pacific to Hawaii and then back home, where on Saturday he is expected to start in Hawaii's backfield against Ohio State in Ohio Stadium.

Perhaps he was shortsighted.

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"Just meeting him, I looked into his eyes and saw how hungry he was for the opportunity," said Hawaii running-backs coach Wayne Moses, who was instrumental in bringing Harris to Honolulu after his two standout seasons at Ventura.

"We decided to give him a new beginning at this level," Moses said. "We thought he had the ability. We didn't care who else was recruiting him or how many stars he had beside his name. He was a great kid that was hungry for the chance."

Starving, actually.

Harris had been through the college wringer. His first school, Grand Rapids Community College in Michigan, folded its program months after he arrived. He then headed to Toledo, planning to walk on, but he struggled academically in his first semester and got buried in student debt in his second.

Harris, who is a junior, was only a partial NCAA academic qualifier after graduating from Marion-Franklin in 2011, and as of last spring, he needed more than 25 transferable credits to be eligible to play Division I football. He earned 23 in a semester at Ventura, then went to summer school.

"As soon as I got it done, I came to Hawaii the next day," Harris said.

Harris, a 5-foot-11, 190-pound speedster, hit the ground running. He loved Hawaii from the start. Island climate and culture is no shock, he said, nor is it a distraction.

"It's pretty much nice here every day," Harris said. "So there is no excuse not to get up and go grind with your teammates."

Although Harris had made his name at Ventura as a kick returner and did not start in Hawaii's opener against visiting Colorado on Thursday, he had a team-high 17 carries for 68 yards in a 28-20 win over the Buffaloes.

"He came in and was very serious-minded," Chow said. "He'll probably start for us (on Saturday). We try to do it by committee in such a long season, but the other guy (senior running back Steven Lakalaka) is a little chipped up.

"(Harris) is going back to his hometown, and it's a neat story. It's nice to see young people like that have success. It's why people stay in coaching for so long."

Marion-Franklin coach Brian Haffele echoed Chow. Harris remains the fastest player Haffele has coached. By Haffele's watch, Harris ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash during his senior year, when Marion-Franklin advanced to a state semifinal and Harris rushed for 785 yards and 10 touchdowns.

"But Paul was not a 'me' guy in high school," Haffele said. "We could have given him the ball 30 times a game, but he was just one of the guys on those teams that were pretty good. He never complained, and that's when I noticed how mature he was."

More impressive to Haffele has been Harris' journey since high school.

Harris said that being so far from home, in California and now Hawaii, has been a blessing rather than a curse because of the bad influences that lurk in his old neighborhoods. Harris could have pursued offers from Mid-American Conference schools, other midmajors and Football Championship Subdivision and Division II programs.

"But I told him it takes a lot of (guts) to do what you did, to just uproot and go away," Haffele said. "To see the success a kid like that has, that's why I stay where I'm at (in the City League).

"Saturday is going to be a great opportunity for him on a big stage. I just told him that he better makes sure he runs fast."

smitchell@dispatch.com

@smitchcd