Clemson University

At last, Clemson quarterback Harper living up to preseason hype

Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper is pressured by Duke's Greg Akinbiyi (54) during Saturday's game.
Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper is pressured by Duke's Greg Akinbiyi (54) during Saturday's game.

CLEMSON -- Media voters for the All-ACC team might want to consider changing the offense's personnel grouping.

Based on the credentials of the quarterback candidates, the trendy Wildcat formation would perhaps give the first team more all-star legitimacy.

It wasn't supposed to be that way, of course.

But it has taken until the final third of the regular season for the prohibitive preseason favorite, Clemson senior Cullen Harper, to reappear on the radar.

"He's starting to play like we all expected him to play," interim coach Dabo Swinney said. "As much-maligned as he's been, Cullen has started to settle in and put together a little run here."

Probably not a substantial enough run to snag the all-conference honor, which figures to go to a veteran quarterback who leads his team to the ACC title game from the muddled league race these next two weeks.

Yet unofficial offensive coordinator Billy Napier suggests that in recent weeks, Harper has played at a level comparable to his peak in last year's 27-touchdown, six-interception debut.

In three games as the starting quarterback under the Swinney regime, Harper has thrown for 253, 240 and 292 yards, respectively, to vault into the conference lead in passing yards per game (207.5).

Before the coaching change, Harper reached 200 yards just once in six games.

Several factors can be tied to Harper's about-face, none more important to Napier than an apparent change in how he handled scrutiny from both outside and inside the program.

Napier, who said two weeks ago that Harper "got to smelling himself a bit in the offseason and kind of forgot what got him to where he was at," said Harper finally appears to care less about what others think - and for the better.

"He's finally competing, I think," Napier said. "Whereas before, he was more worried about making a mistake than he was the final product of winning and losing."

Senior running back James Davis even wondered whether fan support for ballyhooed backup Willy Korn finally took a mental toll.

Somewhat fitting to Napier's assertion, Harper keeps shrugging off both notions, claiming the only differences in his play have been related to health and how he is used.

Swinney and Napier have removed the kid gloves from the offense and engrained a more aggressive mind-set.

An increased emphasis on wielding a vertical passing game -- which plays to Harper's arm strength -- has been evident both in his increased touchdowns (six in Swinney's four games, four in the previous six) and continued interceptions (six for both coaches).

Furthermore, Harper's reinvigoration has coincided with the timing of his minor shoulder surgery after the Georgia Tech game last month.

While the procedure was performed on Harper's left, non-throwing shoulder, both Swinney and Napier believe the surgery has freed Harper from worrying about protecting the shoulder when he spots defensive pressure coming.

Harper hasn't been a scrambling threat, but he now has proven adept at squirming away from a potential sack to roll out of the pocket and throw the ball away.

And this year, there's something to be said for Harper cutting his losses.

"He's a really good, really effective scrambler, and obviously earlier in the year he was more consumed about getting hurt than he was being effective," Napier said.

"And I think he's finally figured it out. He's made his mind up that he doesn't care. That's the way, at some point, that you have to play. ... Your total focus is on what's the score."