Today's former Tiger should be a familiar one. Quarterbacks are the face of the football team, and Cullen Harper was the face of Clemson football for two exciting (and interesting to say the least) seasons. Cullen came on the scene as a junior and absolutely lit up the ACC, breaking an incredible number of Clemson passing records on the way to being named Second Team All-ACC. Then came one of the most tumultuous seasons in Clemson history, and, if you look back on it now, probably one of the most important seasons in Clemson history. Cullen was the first quarterback in the Dabo Swinney era, and his success over the last 7 games of the season helped cement Dabo's place as head coach. Cullen could have gone in the tank after a up and down senior season, at one point losing his starting spot. However, like a true Tiger, Harper fought back from adversity, kept his head on his shoulders, and led Clemson on a late season streak to become Bowl eligible.
Without Cullen Harper helping turn around a floundering team, who knows if the Dabo Swinney experiment at Clemson makes it out of "interim" status. So, without further ado, Mr. Cullen Harper.
Hi Cullen, thanks for helping me out with this project. What are you up to these days?
I have been living in Charleston, SC for the past three years with my wife, Jordan. I am now in my 2nd year of dental school at MUSC. My wife and I don't have any kids yet but we have a miniature golden doodle named Henry. We spend a lot of our off time on the boat and out on the beach.
Coming out of high school you had scholarship offers from some prestigious football schools like Georgia Tech, and Auburn. You also had a South Carolina offer. What tipped the scales in favor of Clemson?
Clemson had everything that I was looking for. The university and the football program were both well respected and I felt like it was an excellent fit. I really liked the offense Clemson was running and thought very highly of the coaching staff. I always believed from an educational standpoint and an athletic standpoint that Clemson offered the best of both worlds.
You ended up with an MBA from Clemson, how hard was it for you to juggle being a starting quarterback, with all that entails, and academics at the same time. I imagine time management is one of your strengths.
It was tough at times but the coaching staff and support staff really helped us stay focused on what we were there for. It's just a matter of remembering what you set out to accomplish, staying focused on those goals at hand and having the self-discipline to see it through.
College football does an excellent job in training guys to become more efficient with their time. We were always on the clock while we were in college and really it's no different once you get out into the real world.
As a senior at Sequoyah High School you broke your collarbone and missed most of the season, then you redshirted as a freshman and played sparingly behind Charlie Whitehurst your first two seasons at Clemson. How good did it feel to finally take the field as a starter again as a junior?
My senior year of high school was difficult to deal with because I had put so much into preparing for that upcoming football season. I felt like I was about to have a huge year and then in a quick second I was basically done for the season. It was very frustrating at the time but I knew that I would have the opportunity to play again at Clemson if I worked hard and prepared properly.
My 1st start against Florida State on Labor Day was one of the most satisfying games of my career. I felt like I could have played well during my sophomore year if given the opportunity but to finally get the chance to lead the team my junior and senior year was an incredible opportunity that I'll always appreciate.
You had a record setting junior season, breaking 28 school passing records and being named 2nd team All-ACC, I know quarterbacks are known for their confidence, but was that sort of success right out of the box a little surprising for you?
It didn't surprise me because of how hard we worked. I had been preparing for that season ever since I arrived at Clemson. We had a great group of coaches and players on the team and every one of us worked together and we made some great plays throughout the entire season. For the most part we were able to stay healthy and that can make such a big difference in having a good season and having a mediocre season.
Your senior season was probably one of the strangest in Clemson football history, with some crushing defeats, a midseason coaching change, and then a big run at the end of the year, including a win over South Carolina to become bowl eligible. Looking back at that year now, what stands out the most in your mind?
It really was. I think back on that season and it's incredible to think about the amount of bizarre things that happened that year. We had some serious injuries, we had guys who thought they were done playing so they began coaching, only to have to come back and play because of depth issues caused by injuries. We had moped accidents that caused guys to miss games, we had some bad bounces and just unlucky breaks. Looking back I think I started to force things that weren't there just trying to create some plays. For the first 6 games of the season we just couldn't get much traction. Then we had the coaching change. I will always be extremely thankful for having the opportunity to play those last 7 games for Coach Swinney. We started having fun and playing better. I can't say enough good things about Coach Swinney and how great of a coach he really is. I'm very proud of the direction he has taken the entire program and am not surprised one bit by the success that he has had. He truly is building something special and I am thankful that I was able to be apart of the beginning of that process.
Thinking back on your days at Clemson, what was the most satisfying victory you were a part of, and what was the most stinging defeat?
Beating South Carolina in Columbia my junior year was probably the most satisfying. We beat them my senior year as well but I will always remember the way in which we won my junior year. I actually wasn't sure if I was going to be able to play that game because of an injury the previous week against Boston College. My shoulder felt like it was coming out of socket every throw I made. We were down late in the game but drove down the field with Aaron Kelly making some excellent catches. Mark Buckholtz was able to hit the game winning kick as time expired and we all rushed the field. That was a great win and a great way to finish the regular season.
The most stinging loss was definitely the week before against Boston College. I remember it was a cold and dark November night and Death Valley was probably the most electric I have seen it. We had a chance to beat them for the Atlantic Division title and it just slipped right through our fingers. They were a good team and Matt Ryan was an excellent QB but they got away with one that night.
Do you have any advice for incoming Clemson football players?
My advice would be to make the most of your opportunities. Not only on the field but especially off the field. I would encourage guys to get a degree that is valuable and meaningful. It might make your time in college a little more difficult but when you're done playing you will be thankful to have a degree that can help move you forward in life. Take advantage of the scholarship and get a valuable degree towards something that you would enjoy doing.
Do you get back to Death Valley for any games?
I have not made it back the past couple of seasons but I plan on making it back this year for at least 1 game. I'd like to get back more but with school and everything else going on it's sometimes nice to just be able to watch it with friends over here in Charleston.
What is your prediction for the upcoming season?
I think it's going to be another excellent season. I can absolutely see another run like we saw last year but with a different ending.
Your dad was a starting offensive linemen for Georgia's National Championship in 1980. How much did having a father with extensive football experience help your development, and how difficult was it to watch the recent Georgia series. I assume there were some mixed loyalties in the Harper household?
Having my dad there to help navigate through all the processes was extremely helpful. He helped out tremendously in the recruiting process and was able to offer valuable advice on preparing and staying focused once I got to Clemson.
The CU vs. UGA matchup is something I would like to see every year. It makes the schedule more difficult but I think from a standpoint of playing against the best it's the way to go. With Athens being just an hour down the road and the history of the matchup it makes for an incredible game day experience.
Clemson's offensive system has changed significantly since you left school. How do you think you fit into the new high paced offense? You were known more for your arm than your mobility, did we miss out on a chance to see your wheels in action?
I love watching this offense and would have loved the opportunity to play in it. I was never much of a runner but I did have decent speed and mobility. Not like what's under center now though! Watching Deshaun Watson play is a real treat. He does things that I don't see some guys in the NFL doing. The poise, accuracy and athleticism that he brings to the table is unmatchable. When I saw Jameis Winston play as a freshman at FSU I said "he's in the best freshmen I've ever seen play." I said the same thing once Deshaun came in against UGA his freshman year. The way he played last year was just on another level.
This is usually where I ask guys about getting old and give some anecdote about how I'm falling apart in my mid 30's. You're turning 30 in October, you feeling it yet, or are you still in your prime? Any plans for the big 3-0?
The workout soreness and time it takes recover takes a little longer than it used to but other than that life is great. I stay in good shape and try to stay active so that I can keep up a fast pace but I definitely don't bounce back as quick as I used to.
What's on the radio when you're out on the water?
I like a variety of different stuff. About the only music I don't listen too is heavy metal and bro-country. Other than that, if it has a good vibe I probably will like it. Sturgill Simpson is probably my favorite artist right now.
You have any restaurant recommendations in Charleston?
Hands down favorite restaurant in Charleston is Hall's. Still being in school I don't get to go there nearly as often as I would like but my wife and I always go there if we have a celebratory dinner. There are so many other great restaurants over here but my go to spots are Ok-u, Rarebit, Leon's Oyster Bar, Home Team BBQ, and The Americano.
Social media was just starting to take off when you were in school. Are you glad it wasn't so all encompassing when you were at Clemson?
I think it can go either way. I look at the amount of followers a guy like Deshaun has and I think about what a great influence he is able to have on so many people. The amount of people you can reach is incredible and if you use it wisely you can create a brand that is very valuable. If you're not very careful though it can go the other way for you.