CLEMSON — Cullen Harper would like to say that, years from now, he'll look back on his time at Clemson and smile.

At this point, he has some doubts as to whether that'll actually happen.

"You've just got to learn that it really doesn't matter what people are saying around you," the Tigers' senior quarterback said Tuesday. "It's the people who are in your corner and in your group and really care about you and know exactly what's going on — it's their opinions that really count."

In 2006, Harper had to deal with the opinion from his coaches that he wasn't capable of replacing Will Proctor as the season unraveled. Before and during last season, he had to deal with the opinion from fans that incoming freshman Willy Korn was going to take the starting job he'd worked long and hard to earn.

Now, with his numbers less than stellar during a 3-1 start, Harper is dealing with more criticism — and, yes, more calls for Korn to be given an opportunity to do better.

Harper, who was voted preseason player of the year in the ACC, said he can deal with all of the outside stuff. But it appears to be wearing on him as the No. 20 Tigers prepare for Saturday's home game against Maryland.

"You look at most places, and it seems like most people are always praising the quarterback and stuff like that," Harper said. "But every throw I make is going to be judged and scrutinized. But that's just the way it is here."

It hasn't helped that his 10-year-old sister heard fans saying derisive things about her brother during last week's 54-0 win over South Carolina State at Death Valley.

"It makes it tough on my family sometimes to sit up there in the stands and have to listen to other people saying stuff," he said. "I'm 22 years old, and I can handle it. My dad can handle it. My little sister, I don't know if she can."

Harper's four interceptions thus far — he'd thrown none last year through four games — have drawn concern, and so has the injury to his throwing shoulder. Harper suffered a first-degree sprain of his AC joint in an opening loss to Alabama, but he says the shoulder is just fine now.

Actually, Harper says, he feels like he's throwing the ball better than he was last year, when he threw 27 touchdowns and six interceptions while earning second-team All-ACC honors behind Boston College's Matt Ryan.

Fans began to worry when he threw an interception for a touchdown on the first play in a 27-9 victory over North Carolina State. They became even more alarmed when he threw interceptions on back-to-back possessions in the first quarter last week against S.C. State.

He still completed 35 of 52 passes (67 percent) in those games while totaling 413 yards through the air.

Harper led the ACC in passing efficiency last season but is sixth so far this year. His passing average has dropped from 230 yards per game to 198. He's thrown three touchdown passes after throwing 12 through four games in 2007.

"Maybe my stats aren't as good this time this year as they were last year, but I feel like I'm a better quarterback," he said. "I'm throwing the ball better. I'm just not getting some of the breaks I got last year. But I feel like I'm playing well."

Harper is operating behind an inexperienced offensive line that seems to be suffering injuries by the week. In addition to that, he says, defenses are now devoting more attention to his favorite target, senior Aaron Kelly.

Coach Tommy Bowden has stood behind his fifth-year senior, saying repeatedly there are no considerations to play Korn more. He did wonder, though, whether Harper might've been affected by the accolades that came before the season.

Harper, who has been invited to the Senior Bowl, entered the year regarded as the top senior quarterback in college football by NFL scouting services.

"You can't prepare a guy for that," Bowden said. "And I think he's like anybody else. He wants to do well. He's a competitor, and he wants to make every play."

Worth noting:

--Left tackle Chris Hairston (bruised knee) said he improved "by leaps and bounds" during Tuesday's practice. He said he's hoping to play, though line coach Brad Scott said Monday he doesn't anticipate him doing so.

--Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning isn't happy with senior safeties Michael Hamlin and Chris Clemons. He said he's spoken with Bowden about moving cornerback Marcus Gilchrist to safety in an effort to make teams pay for throwing over the middle.

Koenning could also play freshman Rashard Hall, who's been told he's redshirting this season barring injury at the safety position.

Overall, Koenning said, the defense is "so far away from our expectations."

"They've got it in them. We've just got to find it. And hopefully it's this year. And hopefully it's Saturday. But if we don't, we're going to have a long year."

--Linebacker Stanley Hunter (sprained ankle) said he's hoping to play Saturday. He was limited during Tuesday's practice and was unsure whether he'll be full-go today.

Reach Larry Williams at lwilliams@postandcourier.com and check out the Clemson blog at www.charleston.net/blogs/tiger_tracks