Clemson University

Leader of the pack

Junior quarterback Cullen Harper leads the Tigers onto the field for the first preseason practice.
Junior quarterback Cullen Harper leads the Tigers onto the field for the first preseason practice.

CLEMSON -- Since the beginning of the calendar year, Cullen Harper has viewed himself as Clemson's starting quarterback.

It was not until three weeks ago Harper believed it.

The difference between inheriting the job and earning it may be irrelevant for some, but the Tigers' first August scrimmage set the stage for the player who will command the offensive huddle for the first time in tonight's opener against No. 19 Florida State.

That scrimmage, an otherwise meaningless blip on the radar of last month's practices, affirmed two notions in Harper's mind:

• Based on his exclusive oversight of the first-team offense, Clemson coaches and teammates had faith in him as the starter amid persisting speculation freshman Willy Korn might make a run at the job.

• Based on his effectiveness, Harper felt comfortable enough in his own skin to focus on honing his leadership skills.

"It hit me, 'Hey, I'm the guy and this is my offense,'" Harper said.

"I feel like I'm at the stage of my career where it's time for me to step up and be a player for this team. I feel like for the past three years I've been preparing for this moment, and I'm ready."

There have been few signs to suggest otherwise.

Harper's ability to make mid- and long-range passes -- the downfall of his predecessor, Will Proctor -- frequently turned Clemson's defensive backs into the goats of fall camp.

Offensive coordinator Rob Spence has repeatedly declared Korn will not be given a chance to play for the sole sake of seeing what he can do.

Until Harper flashed a hint of nerves in his first exposure to a mass media contingency at coach Tommy Bowden's weekly news conference, there had been little indication his mild-mannered facade could be cracked by pressure or scrutiny.

"I don't know what's going to happen," Bowden said of Harper's debut. "But I don't think he'll get rattled."

Which may be the clearest insight available as to why coaches never beckoned Harper to replace Proctor during last season's downward spiral.

Harper, by all accounts soft-spoken and relatively reserved, has admitted owning a wait-his-turn mentality toward the quarterback pecking order.

The skills were not lacking; his arm strength and accuracy are far superior to Proctor's.

But he never displayed the take-the-bull-by-the-horns aggressiveness that showed he wanted to be the team leader.

Spence, whose evangelical approach obscures a demanding coaching style, could not seem to push the right buttons to coax Harper to improve his attention to detail.

"I really was critical of myself when I first started coaching Cullen because I was probably too boisterous and a little bit too loud at times," Spence said. "He's very interested in doing his best, and I don't think you ever need to raise your voice to make a point with a man like that. He's very motivated and is a self-starter. So I want to approach him as carefully as I can with great respect."

It might have taken Harper becoming the preseason starter by default to trigger the internal mechanisms that propelled him to winning the job.

Although the necessary mobility of the quarterback in Spence's system is often overstated, Harper lowered his 40-yard dash time to 4.57 seconds during the summer while drawing Spence's praise for redefining his body in terms of strength and flexibility.

Before Harper's impressive spring game performance last April, Spence slipped a note in Harper's playbook containing a Bible verse and its relevance to his situation.

Spence intends to deliver a similar motivational message today. Although Spence declined to reveal the specific passage, he hopes it brings an inner peace to the first-game starter about to get his first exposure to the pressure-cooker that is the starting quarterback spot.

"Sometimes leadership comes from places we don't necessarily think it comes from," Spence said. "Chronological age has nothing to do with it. Position has nothing to do with it. Leadership is about influence, and sometimes youth can provide that if you have the right character.

"In other words, you don't have to be a senior. You learn how to lead in the trenches or in the locker room. He has those qualities, the soul, that strength in a man to do those things."