GREENSBORO, GA. — Two years ago, as Clemson's season unraveled spectacularly thanks in part to decidedly unspectacular play at the quarterback position, Cullen Harper wasn't deemed a capable enough quarterback to get a first-string snap in practice — let alone a game.
Now, he's a strong candidate for preseason player-of-the-year honors in the ACC and among the top senior quarterbacks in college football.
The more acclaim Harper attracts, the harder it becomes to figure out why he wasn't given a chance to do what Will Proctor couldn't during the 2006 flameout, in which Clemson dropped four of its last five games after a 7-1 start.
"You always look back and wonder why you didn't get the chances," Harper said Sunday, the first day of the 2008 ACC Football Kickoff at Reynolds Plantation. "If I can go out and do it now, then why not then? But you put it behind you and you move on."
Harper, who with safety Michael Hamlin represented Clemson during Sunday's media interviews with players from the ACC's 12 schools, appears content to focus less on the past than the future. And this graduate student's future, starting with his final season in a Tigers uniform, appears quite promising.
Having entered his junior season battling the assumption that heralded freshman Willy Korn would snatch the starting job, Harper went
on to earn serious consideration for ACC player of the year in 2007. Boston College's Matt Ryan won that award after the Eagles defeated Clemson in Death Valley and advanced to the ACC title game.
Now, Harper battles obscurity no more. When he arrived at the Ritz-Carlton on Saturday with Hamlin, he found himself carrying the distinction as the ACC's marquee player.
"Last year, people were writing me off," he said. "People didn't think I was going to last three games. And to get where I am this year, it's quite an honor."
Harper threw 27 touchdown passes last year with just six interceptions, falling 9 yards short of 3,000 passing yards. He completed 65.1 percent of his passes and led the ACC in passing efficiency.
He guided Clemson to its second nine-win season since 2000. And this year, he leads a team that's considered Top 10 material and the favorite to win its first ACC title since 1991.
The Tigers have come agonizingly short of winning their division the past three years, but this is viewed as their year. Clemson is considered more talented than everyone else, and the surest indication of that is Harper's main competition in player-of-the-year voting: tailback James Davis, his teammate.
"It kind of feels like all the pieces of the puzzle are in place for us to go win this thing," Harper said.
The 6-4 Harper is being watched closely by NFL scouts. According to the most recent ratings compiled by the two most influential scouting services used by the NFL, Harper is rated as the No. 1 senior quarterback.
The Blesto service ranks him and Louisville's Hunter Cantwell atop its list; Harper has the top distinction all to himself in the National.
Harper reconciles all this with the humility of someone who was no one just a year ago. He appreciates the love but says none of it is relevant when it comes to helping Clemson follow through on its goal of reaching the ACC title game.
"I'm not paying a whole lot of attention to the awards," he said. "You go out and play. You play to the best of your ability and look in the mirror and say if you gave it your all, that's all you can do."
Harper doesn't appear to have let the onset of stardom take away from his drive or focus. He's gained weight, up to 225 after weighing in at 205 after the South Carolina game last November. He's shaved his time in the 40-yard dash to 4.53 seconds.
And he recently turned down an invitation to serve as a counselor at the prestigious Manning Passing Academy, instead opting to remain in Clemson and provide some leadership to teammates as they slog away in voluntary workouts.
"I'm not letting it go to my head," said Harper, whose team officially begins preseason practice Aug. 1. "I'm staying focused and making sure I continue to do the right things."
Even if he wasn't deemed the right man at quarterback two years ago.