I knew long before Chris Harper did that he was not destined to be a quarterback.
It was September 30, 2008, and I was sitting on the shady south side of Autzen Stadium, watching Boise State pound the ailing Oregon football team in a lackluster effort by the Ducks.
Injuries had elevated Jeremiah Masoli from third-string to starter for the game against the Broncos, but he got knocked out early, suffering a concussion on a helmet-to-helmet hit on his first passing attempt of the game. Masoli stayed in a little while longer before the Ducks’ trainers realized he’d been concussed, then coach Mike Bellotti made the switch to go with Harper.
It was a disaster.
The freakishly athletic true freshman attempted all of three passes; two of them were intercepted and one hit the turf well in front of his intended target.
And that’s about the time when I said out loud: “this guy can’t throw.”
He couldn’t. Harper always had the athleticism but never the arm nor the accuracy to make even the dullest of defenders bite on a play fake. The Ducks knew it, too; during a painful-to-watch stretch that spanned the second and third quarters, then-offensive coordinator Chip Kelly called a string of running plays — somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 in a row — that went virtually nowhere and drew some boos from the home crowd as the Broncos forged a 37-13 lead through three quarters. With Harper taking snaps, Oregon’s offense had become one-dimensional, without even the threat of a pass.
Entering the fourth, Bellotti brought in true freshman Darron Thomas, who ripped off his redshirt and led a furious comeback attempt with three touchdown passes, but ultimately, the Ducks fell short, losing 37-32.
Somewhere in the aftermath, Harper was hanging his head, and while he later asked Bellotti to move him over to receiver — a request the coach granted, I assume, happily — Harper wasn’t yet ready to give up on his dream of being a quarterback.
It had become clear, however, that he was not bound to be a QB for the Ducks. That, and the fact that he was homesick, led Harper to transfer to Kansas State in 2009, where he again tried, and failed, to be a college quarterback.
He eventually settled completely into the role of a receiver, and it’s there that he’s flourished and made a mark with the Wildcats. It’s there that he’ll try to do some damage against the Ducks in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 3.
With Collin Klein at quarterback, K-State is certainly not a throw-first team, but Harper still leads the Wildcats with 50 receptions, which he’s turned into 786 yards and three touchdowns.
Harper has told reporters this week that he holds no animosity for the Ducks, and wants to win the Fiesta Bowl, sure, but not out of some sense of revenge.
If anything, Harper should probably be thankful to the Ducks and Kelly, the team’s current head coach, for exposing early in his career that he was not fit to play quarterback in college. Otherwise, Harper might have wasted precious time floundering at QB, watching from the sidelines instead of working out at the receiver position, where he’s gone on to make a big difference.
One-time Oregon quarterback Chris Harper finds a home as a Kansas State receiver
Oregon vs. Boise State boxscore
Adam Sparks has been following Oregon Ducks football since 1990, and has written about the team as a freelancer since 2009.