|Clemson's Harper set for bigger year|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 24 July 2008 12:27|
The Tigers' quarterback has come a long way from his first start, when he wasn't even sure he'd make it through the game.
``Things are definitely a lot different,'' the shaggy haired Harper said with a grin. ``And definitely for the better.''
Harper didn't smile so much last offseason. Most of the questions he fielded were about whether he was up for the task of leading Clemson's offense, and how long would it take whiz kid recruit Willy Korn to unseat him.
Turns out the answers were: Absolutely and no time soon.
Harper put together one of the best seasons in Clemson history, connecting for a school-record 27 touchdown passes with six interceptions. He led the ACC in passer efficiency rating and almost out-rallied last year's comeback king, Boston College's Matt Ryan.
Harper's perfectly thrown pass near the goal line fell through the hands of Aaron Kelly in the final moments of the Eagles' 20-17 win in game that kept the Tigers out of the ACC title game.
Now, with Ryan learning the Atlanta Falcons' offense as first-round draft pick - and Korn settled into a back-up role - Harper easily finished atop the voting this week for the ACC's top player heading into the 2008 season.
For Harper, it seemed like he waited forever to get a chance to play.
He arrived at Clemson in 2004 in the middle of four-year starter Charlie Whitehurst's reign as starting quarterback. Harper thought he might get in the mix to succeed Whitehurst in 2006, but backed up fifth-year senior Will Proctor.
The Tigers opened 7-1 and rose to No. 10 nationally that season. Then things fell apart with four losses in Clemson's final five games. As Proctor grew more ineffective, Harper got more impatient for a chance to show what he could do.
Harper, though, didn't get a snap during Clemson's slide and wondered if that meant coaches didn't trust him. He thought briefly about leaving. Instead, Harper dug in and vowed to make the most of his opportunity.
``I was at the point in my career it was now or never,'' Harper said. ``If I was going to play at the next level, this was my opportunity to prove myself. It was my time and I was ready.''
Not everyone thought so. The people's choice before last year was Korn.
Many Tiger fans, not looking forward to another season with an untested older starter, had clearly settled on the polite, high-school star who lived an hour away and was part of four straight state titles.
Harper started the nationally televised opening game against Florida State, feeling his time as starter could be brief if the offense struggled.
But ``I wasn't nervous at all,'' Harper said. ``For a first time starter, large crowd, what was it, Labor Day? There was a lot at stake.''
Harper delivered, and threw two touchdown passes in Clemson's 24-18 victory. The next game, Harper threw for a Clemson record five touchdowns - then watched as Korn received a standing ovation from the Death Valley crowd at his first action.
Gradually, Harper's steady success won over the doubters.
Harper's stardom led him to a quick look at the NFL during the offseason. With only one year of experience, though, Harper wanted to return to better himself for next year's draft. He also wanted to help guide Clemson to an ACC championship for the first time since 1991.
Tigers coach Tommy Bowden had his fingers crossed that Harper would grow into the job, but no one expected so much success.
``I don't think a coach ever knows, especially when a player's a junior,'' said Bowden, who'll start his 10th season with the Tigers.
Harper chuckles at how he's gone from a tenuous starter to Heisman Trophy hopeful.
``When people say stuff like that, talk about the Heisman, it's a great honor,'' he said. ``But I don't let it go to my head.''
Instead, he'll concentrate on what he always had - hard work, film study and improving the skills that have brought him this far. Harper thinks if he does that, Clemson's chances at a championship are strong.
``I'm definitely more confident,'' Harper said, ``but at the same time, I know how much further I've got to go and what's still out there on the table.''