Mr. Nimble

CLEMSON - With the understanding that the shelf life of a running back doesn't last but a couple of years in the NFL...

With the understanding that the shelf life of a running back doesn't last but a couple of years in the NFL, former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis figured a way he could keep what is now a Hall of Fame career going after several years in which he battered and bruised linemen and linebackers to the tune of almost 1,500 yards annually.

But after five years in the NFL and with his body becoming more and more sore and taking longer and longer to heal following games, he decided he could no longer put his body through the grinder so he started working on his feet and shiftiness in hopes of making the first guy at the point of attack miss.

It turned out to be what made this bruising fullback, who played tailback in the NFL, one of the more unique runners the game has ever seen. Weighing more than 260 pounds, Bettis had the feet of a ballerina and an ability to make the first or second guy miss, while allowing him to play another eight more seasons. He finished his NFL career at the time as the game's fifth all-time leading rusher and as a Super Bowl Champion.

Clemson's Jamie Harper has a long way to go before he can be totally compared to Bettis, but the 5-foot-11, 220-pound running does appear to have the same nimble feet, which allows him to avoid contact at the point of attack and get to the second level.

"Being a big back everyone just expects you to rollover defenders, but coming in and being a slasher and giving them a move every now and then, it keeps them a little off balance and helps you not get hit as much while also gaining a little more extra yardage," Harper said.

Harper's ability to make people miss and to show that kind of shiftiness, surprises his position coach from time to time.

"Just like Andre (Ellington) plays bigger than what he is, Jamie plays smaller or can play smaller than what he appears," running backs coach Andre Powell said. "He has good top end speed that can make you miss and he can do a lot of things. It is surprising sometimes."

Harper is also a smart guy. When he saw the extra pounds he put on last season were affecting his running, he went on a strict diet in the off-season and has stuck to it, losing almost 20 pounds. Now he has the nimble feet and the speed, to go along with some good strength and size which makes him one of the more unique running backs in the ACC.

"Jamie is a smart guy and is a tough guy and he is a big guy. He lost some weight and that helped improve his mobility," Powell said. "Jamie needs to keep working and needs to work on second level running a little bit.

"I'm very pleased with where he is and I think he is a guy that can help us win. No doubt about it."

The Jacksonville, Fla., native is already showing that ability. With starter C.J. Spiller sitting out the spring, Harper led the Tigers' twice in rushing during the three major stadium scrimmages, including 83 yards on 21 carries in the Orange and White Game.

"He was a good player before when he was 240 pounds, but when you had guys like C.J. and James and every game was crucial, you are going to cater to the upper classmen and to the guys that have more experience," Powell said. "(Harper) is still a sophomore and the best thing about sophomores is one day they are juniors.

"He will make some mistakes. You have to be able to absorb some of the mistakes, but I would guess he's going to make a lot more plays than mistakes."

The only mistake Harper has made - and it is a big one - is his inability to hang onto the ball. Though he only fumbled twice during his freshman season last year, the problem was he carried the football just 34 times.

A good number for a running back to have in between fumbles in usually one to every 100 carries.

Things didn't get any better for the sophomore this spring when he lost one fumble in the second scrimmage.

"Ball security is a big thing obviously," Powell said. "You would not like to have any, but you know you will have some. We work on ball security everyday and he will get better. You know quarterbacks do not like to throw interceptions, but they are going to have some.

"You would like for the offensive line to never have a penalty, but they will jump offsides every now and then. That's one of those things that occur and you want to minimize it. You like to have a one in hundred ratio. If they have 100 carries and one fumble, that's about right. You just hope that one fumble doesn't occur when you are going in to the end zone to win that championship." Top Stories