Clemson University

Ryan gets the hype, but Harper's got better numbers

File, Winslow Townson • The Associated Press (Boston College photo); File, Travis Bell • Sideline Carolina (Clemson photo); Illustration by Phil Perry •
File, Winslow Townson • The Associated Press (Boston College photo); File, Travis Bell • Sideline Carolina (Clemson photo); Illustration by Phil Perry •

CLEMSON -- Part of Clemson junior quarterback Cullen Harper's unconventional throwing motion involves pretending he is reaching back and grabbing an item off a shelf.

If Harper continues his torrid production for at least one more game, that shelf could reconfigure into a trophy mantle.

As he is quick to contend, Saturday's 7:45 p.m. contest with No. 18 Boston College is about No. 15 Clemson's quest to reach the ACC championship game and perhaps snatch the program's first conference title since 1991.

Yet the focus for nearly all of Harper's 15-minute media interview session Tuesday hovered around his personal showdown with Eagles quarterback Matt Ryan, who was considered the Heisman Trophy front-runner until the team's consecutive losses the last two weeks.

Harper's consistent successes have stirred growing sentiment that he should be in the conversation for first-team all-ACC honors, setting the stage for a stimulating -- if not influential -- competition this weekend.

"I heard a saying a long time ago, 'When your actions speak well, there's no need to hear what you say,'" offensive coordinator Rob Spence said. "So let his actions speak for themselves."

The longer Harper has sustained his actions, the louder the argument in his favor has seemingly grown, especially after his four-touchdown showing against Wake Forest last weekend.

With 10 games in both players' pockets, Harper trumps Ryan in several statistical categories, including touchdowns (26-24), pass efficiency rating (154.1-129.8) and completion percentage (66.5-59.2) while owning less than one-third the interceptions (4-13).

Furthermore, Clemson (8-2, 5-2 ACC) sits in the same position as Boston College (8-2, 4-2) in the conference race, another measure of their leadership value.

Harper repeatedly downplayed the individual assessments, conceding only the increase in competitive juices extracted by facing a fellow quarterback who has repeatedly garnered such national acclaim.

"That does bring a different element to the game," Harper said. "But first and foremost, my goal is to put this team in position to win and not getting caught up in a comparison of two quarterbacks, because this is much more than that."

Which in and of itself details the knock on the lower-profiled Harper in this debate.

While opponents are not specifically scheming to slow Harper as they have Ryan -- a strong-armed 6-foot-5 senior projected as a top-10 pick in the forthcoming NFL draft -- there appears both truth and misconception in the perception Harper benefits from being surrounded by superior playmakers.

Harper (6-4, 220) does have two coveted tailbacks and likely all-ACC receiver Aaron Kelly at his discretion, yet Clemson's running game has hardly helped against formidable defenses.

Conversely, Tigers safety Michael Hamlin compares at least two of Boston College's leading receivers -- Brandon Robinson and Kevin Challenger -- to Clemson's underrated Tyler Grisham. And Eagles junior tight end Ryan Purvis figures to be pro material.

"All the Heisman stuff, (Ryan) deserved it," Kelly said. "But Cullen's been just as good if you look at the stats. He's been a leader on this team and done everything we've needed to do to win games.

"The biggest thing he's done is he hasn't thrown interceptions. That's one thing that can be an Achilles heel for young quarterbacks. Sometimes they get anxious and they'll throw the ball into traffic or get focused on one guy. Cullen's been consistent all year. He throws the ball to the open guy and stays poised when things get crazy around him. Having poise under fire is something I think you're just born with. And he has that."

The acquired trait was the throwing motion that sets him apart from most other quarterbacks.

Harper's position coach in eighth grade taught him to the peculiar wind-up.

While the majority of quarterbacks cock the ball sideways in their hands as they rear back, Harper waits until his right hand is at its peak above his head, with his elbow elevated above his shoulder.

He then proceeds to throw with an over-the-top motion rarely seen to that degree these days.

"He looks like he almost releases it too high, but everyone's a little quirky, and it works," Spence said. "There's not that many people who release it and throw it in that manner. I'm not saying it's perfect, but it's closer to what you think you want than most people throwing the ball."

In fact, Georgia coach Mark Richt tried to alter Harper's mechanics during a summer camp before his senior year of high school.

As Harper said, that was not happening.

"I've always thrown it that way," Harper said. "I think it's too late to change it now."

Whether it is too late to change the minds of all-conference voters remains to be seen.

• Tigers ready for showdown • 4C