Steady Does It

Loaded with skill players, the Tigers have the efficient Cullen Harper to drive them
August 10, 2008

ON HIS way to becoming the ACC's highest-rated quarterback in 2007, Cullen Harper first had to learn how to play the position in college. "I was in about the worst possible offense for a quarterback in high school—the wing T," says Harper, a native of Alpharetta, Ga. "I could count on one hand the number of times I dropped back in the pocket and passed." ¬∂ Despite Harper's undeveloped passing skills ("I'd never completed a slant pass," he says), Clemson offered him a scholarship following a one-day performance at its summer camp, in 2003, before his senior season at Sequoyah High. He proceeded to miss all but two games that fall with a broken collarbone, then spent his first two seasons at Clemson, including a redshirt year in '04, behind Charlie Whitehurst and Will Proctor. Harper had become such an afterthought that when Proctor graduated following the '06 season, many fans assumed that highly touted Willy Korn would get the starting job as a freshman last fall. "[Harper] gave Willy no opportunity," says coach Tommy Bowden, who redshirted Korn. "His performance through the spring and through August was very consistent."

Harper maintained that effectiveness throughout a breakthrough season last year, completing 65.1% of his passes for 2,991 yards, with 27 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He broke 22 school records while leading the Tigers to their first nine-win season in four years and finished ahead of Boston College's Matt Ryan, the third pick in last spring's NFL draft, in the ACC passer ratings. "He's very accurate," says Bowden. "It allowed us to take more chances downfield."

Unfortunately for Clemson, Ryan outdueled Harper in the teams' Nov. 17 meeting, and BC's 20--17 victory prevented the Tigers from advancing to the ACC championship game. With the return of Harper, top receiver Aaron Kelly and the tailback tandem of James Davis and C.J. Spiller, this year's team, Bowden says, presents the best opportunity to win the school's first conference title since 1991. But with three new starters, a green offensive line will have to come together quickly. "It would be a shame if we can't take advantage of our skill guys," says Bowden.

As long as Harper is under center, that shouldn't be an issue. Kelly, a fellow suburban Atlanta native, says that at least two of his 11 touchdown catches last season came on plays in which Harper bought time and found him downfield. "If you're open," says Kelly, "he'll hit you." So much for the wing T.



COACH: Tommy Bowden (10th year)

2007 RECORD: 9--4 (5--3 in ACC)


RETURNING STARTERS: Offense 7, Defense 7


30 vs. Alabama in Atlanta

6 The Citadel
13 N.C. State
20 South Carolina State
27 Maryland

9 at Wake Forest
18 Georgia Tech

1 at Boston College
8 at Florida State
15 Duke
22 at Virginia
29 South Carolina

Since joining the ACC in 2005, BC has beaten Clemson all three times, by a total of seven points. It's the sort of obstacle the Tigers must overcome if they expect to get to the next level.


James Davis is the Tigers' leading rusher, but running mate C.J. Spiller can't be overlooked. Ten of the junior's 17 touchdowns have come on plays of 50 or more yards, and he is averaging 6.3 yards a carry.

my SI
Get the latest and best Tigers stories, statistics and fan blogs from across the Web, handpicked by the editors of SI.

PHOTOMITCH STRINGER/ICON SMI (HARPER)Harper's accuracy has created more options in the passing game. PHOTOREX BROWN/GETTY IMAGES (DAVIS)Davis, who rushed for 1,064 yards in '07, is half of a potent tandem at tailback. PHOTO