Patience is a virtue, and when you’re patient and accept a role, good things will happen in the end. This is the approach Clemson QB Cullen Harper took when he had to wait for his opportunity to showcase his talents.
The patience paid off, and Harper is now considered, myself included, as the top senior quarterback in the country after a junior campaign where he threw for 2,991 yards, 27 touchdowns and just six interceptions.
After displaying his outstanding talent to the nation and his draft value potentially at a high level, Harper considered leaving Clemson for NFL riches. But the thoughts of leaving school were short lived, and Harper knew that one more year in Death Valley would benefit him, as many of his offensive weapons were also returning for a chance to win a National Championship.
In this Scout.com exclusive, Chris Steuber asked Harper about his breakout junior season, the frustration he felt as a backup for three seasons, which quarterback from the 2008 draft class most resembles his play and his goals for this season.
Chris Steuber: Last year was a special season for you; it was your opportunity to see significant playing time as the starting quarterback at Clemson. What was it like to finally take command of the Tigers offense?
Cullen Harper: It was an awesome opportunity for me. I’ve been waiting for three years, as I backed up Charlie Whitehurst for two years and Will Proctor for one year. It was just awesome to finally get the opportunity to get out there, and being successful made it even better.
CS: It seemed like you’ve been the starter at Clemson for three years, rather than sitting the bench for three seasons. What do you think it was that allowed you to excel last year?
Harper: I really believe it’s been my coaching throughout the past few years. I’ve been working hard even when I wasn’t starting. I just paid attention in meeting rooms and absorbed every word my coaches relayed to me. I take every word they say to heart and try to apply it whenever I have a chance. That’s what’s really helped me to be successful.
CS: How much different was your preparation for a game being the starter versus the backup?
Harper: It’s basically the same. When you’re the backup quarterback, you’re only one play away from playing, so you have to prepare just as the starting quarterback does. You don’t want to be thrown into the fire and not be ready. When I was backup quarterback, I prepared just as much as I do now.
CS: You decided to go to Clemson over Auburn, Georgia Tech and South Carolina; do you ever look back and think how different your collegiate career may have been if you went to one of those other schools and had the opportunity to play sooner?
Harper: I have thought about that before, but that just wasn’t meant to be. I was meant to be at Clemson, and I’m happy to be here. I’m in a situation now where I can possibly be one of the top quarterbacks taken in the draft next year, if I go out and succeed this season. I have a chance to win an ACC Championship here at Clemson, so I think everything works out the way it should, and I’m more than happy to be here.
Harper believed that Clemson and it's coaching staff had a plan for him.
AP Photo/Gerry Broome
CS: During your time as a backup, were there any frustrating moments?
Harper: It was tough at times, because you feel like you have the talent and athletic ability to be out there playing. But you just have to be patient and have trust in the coaches that they’re making the right decision and they’re keeping your best interest at heart. That’s really what I did, just continued to be patient, worked hard and basically put it in their hands.
CS: Well, you proved to everyone last year that you’re for real when you ran the offense perfectly. Entering this season, you guys are returning a lot of your key starters from last season. You guys shouldn’t miss a beat this season, right?
Harper: Yeah, we shouldn’t. Right now we have a young, but very talented offensive line, and I have all of the confidence in the world in them. But again, they’re young. The quicker those guys gel and come together, the better off we’ll be. As far as talent goes, in the backfield and at wide receiver, we’re pretty stacked.
CS: You mentioned your backfield; how much pressure does it take off of you to have two dynamic players like James Davis and C.J. Spiller to count on when the passing game isn’t running as it should?
Harper: It really does [take pressure off]; to look behind you and see James and C.J., and then to my left and right you got Aaron Kelly and Tyler Grisham. It just takes a lot of pressure off of me. It’s very comforting.
CS: How surprised where you when James Davis decided to return for his senior year?
Harper: It surprised me a little bit, but James loves Clemson, and he loves being a student here. With the guys we have coming back, we really have a chance to have a special year. I think James noticed that and wanted to come back and be a part of that. Also, I think he saw just how many running backs came out [in the draft] last year. I think he would have had a chance to be one of the top running backs taken, but I think it was definitely a smart move to come back to school, get better and get put in a better position next year.
CS: I recently interviewed Aaron Kelly, and he’s another player who considered leaving school early for the NFL. He’s a very confident wide receiver, and judging from last year’s success you also have a lot of confidence in his ability. You said that it’s comforting to have the offensive weapons you have, but what is it about Kelly that makes him one of the nation’s elite?
Harper: He’s an awesome player. I feel like if I can get the ball in his vicinity, he’s going to make a play for me. He’s a great receiver. He comes to work every day with the attitude to get better. I’m very grateful to have him on my team
CS: Davis and Kelly were two underclassmen who considered leaving school for the NFL, but what about you; did you consider it at all?
Harper: It was a slight consideration. I threw my name out there and I received a fifth round grade. I think I could have been taken a little earlier than that, possibly in the third or fourth round. But I just felt like I wasn’t quite ready to make that jump. I decided to come back and get another year in the weight room and on the field and improve my draft status.
CS: Did you speak with your family or former Clemson players for advice about what you should do?
Harper: Not really, because I honestly wasn’t too serious about it. I just kind of wanted to see where I had the potential to be selected after only having one year as a starter. It was just more curiosity than anything.
CS: How would you compare yourself with the 2008 quarterback draft class, and which of the quarterbacks most resembles your style of play?
Harper: I see myself in the mold of a Matt Ryan; physically we’re pretty close. I think we’re about the same size, and we put up similar numbers during our junior years. I kind of see myself being like him. I think after his junior year he had a similar [draft] grade to what I received. I think we’re similar in a lot of ways, and I think I bring a lot of the same things he brings to the table as far as leadership.
CS: Cullen, when you say you have similar numbers to Matt Ryan, remember that Ryan threw 10 interceptions as a junior and 19 as a senior. Don’t sell yourself short.
Harper: [Laughs]… That’s one part of my game where I believe I manage the game very well. I think I make great decisions, and I don’t force the ball.
Harper believes he's in the mold of Matt Ryan, but without the turnovers.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
CS: That’s one part of your game that you do very well, but if a pro scout came up to you, showed you a stop watch and said, “In 30 seconds describe your style of play,” what would you say?
Harper: I’d say I’m your typical prototype passer, 6-4, 225 pounds. I’m smart with the football; I’m not going to force the ball. I’ll take what the defense gives me. I’m not what you would call a scrambling quarterback, but at the same time I have enough speed to get outside the pocket and make things happen when it breaks down. I think I bring a lot to the table, as far as being a leader as well.
CS: In many ways, the draft process is like another season of a player’s collegiate career. It’s one of the most exhausting and time consuming periods of a potential pro prospect’s life. How do you think you will handle everything that’s involved when you prepare for the draft?
Harper: You just have to make sure you set yourself up with the right quarterback coach and the right training facility. I think you have to stay focused. You have to go and put your time in the weight room, the film room and whatever else that it takes to be a great player. You have to make sacrifices and make smart choices, but you also have to approach it with a business-like attitude.
CS: You’re a year away from that scene of being poked and prodded, but looking ahead to your final year in Death Valley - a place that has a lot of tradition and a tremendous fan following – what’s it like to play football at Clemson?
Harper: It’s awesome. I think we have some of the most passionate fans in the country. When we get off that bus, rub the rock and run down the hill, you have 85,000 fans just screaming; going crazy. It’s just a football school, a football area. Clemson is everything you dream about when you think of playing college football. It has a lot to offer.
CS: Being a starting quarterback in a small town tends to lean towards you not having too many normal days. Do you have rock star status down in the community, and is it hard for you to get around?
Harper: [Laughs]… I don’t know about rock star, but people recognize me. They come up and talk to me about this upcoming season and wish me luck. It’s a small town and people are going to know who you are. It’s a good thing and it’s a bad thing, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.
CS: What is a typical day like in the life of Cullen Harper?
Harper: I’ll take you through what I’ve been doing this summer. A typical day has me waking up around 9 a.m. and cooking some breakfast. I have a shag dancing class that I’ve been taking two days a week. After that class, I’ll go work with our strength and conditioning staff on my flexibility and explosiveness. I’ll then take a little break and get some lunch. After lunch, I’ll watch some film, workout, run and throw. I’m putting in about six hours of hard work everyday towards football.
CS: What do you do for fun off the field?
Harper: I like to play golf. I’ve really gotten into it this summer. I’m just trying to get my score down right now. I’m shooting in the high 80’s, low 90’s. I’m trying to get better, but I really enjoy playing golf with my friends.
CS: Now that the season is around the corner, you probably won’t have too much time for golf. But instead of improving your score on the links you can improve your individual statistics and your team’s performance on the field. What are your goals for this season?
Harper: We want to win the ACC Championship, and obviously the main goal is to win the National Championship; that’s always the goal. We just have to be careful not to look too far ahead. We have to stay focused, take it game by game and go out there and try to be successful. As far as personal goals, I’d like to throw for over 3,000 yards, 30 touchdowns and as few interceptions as possible and put myself in position to be the top quarterback in next year’s draft.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999.