Cullen Harper: Quiet Confidence

CLEMSON - With a year of starting experience and his final spring practice now behind him, redshirt senior quarterback Cullen Harper has little to prove entering the start of preseason camp.

And that's a good thing because a year ago at this time, that simply wasn't the case.

Many expected Harper to be beaten out by the highly-recruited Willy Korn, either during preseason camp or at some point during the season.

After all, he was unproven after playing on the third team behind Charlie Whitehurst his first two years in the program, and furthermore, he wasn't even given the opportunity in 2006 when senior Will Proctor struggled during the second half of the season.

How could he possibly hold off one of the top recruits to potentially ever sign with Clemson?

He did exactly that and then some.

All Harper did during his first year as a starter was come from nowhere to earn second-team All-ACC honors behind the top quarterback available in the 2008 draft in Boston College's Matt Ryan.

He also established 22 school records, including single season marks for touchdown passes (27) and TD/interception ratio (4.5). And, he threw for 2,991 yards, the second highest figure in Clemson history and completed 65.1 percent of his passes, also second best in school history.

Not bad for a guy many fans had penciled in as a backup this time 13 months ago.

"Things were a little different for me this spring," Harper said. "Last year I was trying to prove myself. This year I was going out with the attitude to get better, trying to push myself to the next level by getting to the third and fourth receivers in my progressions and trying to encourage our guys up front and basically working on leading this team."

And he isn't just offering lip service when it comes to leadership either.

While he will be the first to admit he doesn't get caught up in the highs and lows of the game, he has assumed a natural leadership role with this team and other players have taken notice. In fact, he was named the permanent team captain after the 2007 season along with rising senior safety Mike Hamlin.

It's just another one of many reasons why Harper has built a solid foundation of confidence that will be seemingly impossible to erode heading into next season.

And he'll need every bit of it.

Despite the fact Clemson arguably returns more talent at the skill positions than any other point in school history, the offensive line is young. Very young.

During the season opener against Alabama on Aug. 30 in the Georgia Dome, the Tigers could have two starting guards who've never played a down of college football after redshirting their freshmen years to go along with two first-team tackles who have a combined two starts between them.

And the depth behind those players is somewhat inexperienced as well.

Harper said that inexperience showed itself at times during the spring, but that it wasn't unexpected.

"We had a couple of tough days of practice during the spring but you expect that because we are young there," he said. "But we are also very talented up front and those guys came in every day with the attitude of getting better and it won't be too long until they are really ready to go. I believe that. They will be ready to go by the time we play Alabama."

Even more importantly, Harper believes that as the season goes along, Clemson's offensive line will get better by the game and once again the Tigers will be in position to challenge for the ACC Championship.

"That's the goal," he said. "There's no question and everybody knows it. We want to win it and with the guys we have coming back that is a very realistic goal that we can obtain.

"Once we get the offensive line taken care of we'll be just fine. And I do have a lot of faith that's going to happen. You could see that during stretches this spring. Those guys got some good reps against one of the best defensive lines they are going to face next season and that will pay off for us next year."

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