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.