Entering the Chick-Fil-A Bowl last December, then junior quarterback Cullen Harper had to be feeling pretty good.
After all, he had just directed his team to a 9-3 record in the regular season, garnering second-team All-ACC honors along the way while smashing more than 20 school records.
But then suddenly, and very unexpectedly, he had his worst game of the year. Against Auburn and its sixth-ranked defense, Harper completed just 14-of-33 passes for 104 yards as the Tigers fell 23-20 in overtime.
Turns out Harper was still feeling the effects of having shoulder surgery just a few days after the South Carolina game due an injury he suffered against Boston College the week before. A few weeks after the loss, he described it as though he was throwing his first pass of the game in all 33 of his attempts.
In essence, he never truly warmed up because of the injury and he never got in the same rhythm he was in the other 12 games of the year.
Eight months later, returning to his home town and the Georgia Dome, Harper has a chance to showcase the skills that led Scout.com to rank him the No. 1 senior quarterback in the nation this year.
CUTigers.com sat down with the senior quarterback and team captain to get his thoughts earlier this week in a 1-on-1 interview:
Talk a little about your last trip to the Georgia Dome in the bowl game ... obviously you weren't at full strength but what was that like?
Harper: Last year our trip to the Dome didn't go quite as planned. I was coming off shoulder surgery and just wasn't quite 100 percent. I have put that behind me and I have kind of forgotten about that game. I am definitely looking forward to going back to the Dome and playing a quality opponent in Alabama. I just want to get this season started off the right way.
Are there any adjustments for you when playing inside the Dome as far as communication or anything else?
Harper: It is a little bit louder. We are going to have to be able to call our plays with signals. We will have to go off of a leg kick here and there. We can't use our cadence just because it is so loud, but we've been preparing for that and we've been in positions like that over the past year. We will definitely be ready.
What are some of the problems the Alabama defense brings to the table? I know they have a base 3-4 scheme but it looks more like a 4-3 most of the time.
Harper: Yeah, they will line up in an odd front with four linebackers back there. They will also be in an even 4-3 defense. It is important that we are ready for both of those looks. We have faced those looks before so we will be ready. Alabama will be big and physical up front. They have some playmakers in the secondary so it is going to be tough, but we are definitely up for it.
Do you feel better about your offensive line than you did at the start of practice in August? Can they get the job done?
Harper: Yeah, I feel a lot better. That was a question going into the preseason, but from what I have seen those guys can go out and play. Coach Scott has coached them up to play at a level where they can go out there and be successful. We knew what we had in Thomas and he is a solid leader. Guys like Cory Lambert, Jamarcus Grant and Barry Humphries. Those guys have really solidified their roles and what they bring to this team. They have all my confidence in the world.
Are you a little surprised that Grant and Humphries have been able to hold off guys like Mason Cloy and David Smith?
Harper: Not really. Those guys have been in the program. Jamarcus Grant is an upcoming junior so he has been in the program for almost four years. Same with Barry Humphries. Barry Humphries has played a lot here. So with all of that experience and all of those reps in practice that is tough for a young guy to come in and beat out.
What will Nick Saban do at the line of scrimmage that could give you problems?
Harper: They try to disguise a lot of their blitzes and pressures. I just need to make sure I watch a lot of film and try to pickup tendencies so I can go out there and play and not be surprised by things.
How does your confidence level, personally, compare with a year ago?
Harper: I have a pretty good feeling of where the ball is going to go each snap. I have just grown more comfortable in my role as the starting quarterback here. A whole year under your belt and going against some of the top defenses in the country in the ACC. That is just only going to help. There are not a whole lot of things that I haven't seen when I go out there. I know what to expect and I know where to go with the ball out there and try not to force things down field.
What kind of coverage do you expect to see out there Saturday night from the Alabama secondary?
Harper: I expect to see a lot of zone coverage from what we have seen in the past. I'm sure they might play a safety over the top and try to take away Aaron Kelly, but we'll be ready for whatever they do.
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