MEMPHIS – When it comes to the quarterback position in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, there are burdens and then there are blessings.
Alcorn State coach Fred McNair insists he’s not burdened with the Braves’ blessings.
“It’s not one of those things where you have a quarterback controversy,” McNair said during this week’s SWAC coaches teleconference. “It’s nothing of that nature. These guys do a great job of communicating and staying in line with each other. It makes a big difference when you have guys like that. Easily, it can turn sour at the QB position, because you want to be the one to lead the team. But in situations like this, it’s not selfishness when it comes to competing. They’re all helping each other at that position.”
That position is where redshirt junior Felix Harper will continue as the starter as Alcorn State looks to extend the run of dominance it’s been on the past few weeks. The Braves are 3-0 since Harper stepped in for SWAC preseason Offensive player of the year Noah Johnson, who is working his way back from a shoulder sprain sustained in the Sept. 14 loss at McNeese State.
Johnson, who led the Braves to a SWAC championship last season, resumed throwing the football in workouts last week but has still battled soreness in his throwing shoulder. But even when Johnson returns to full strength, which could be as soon as Saturday’s home game against Savannah State, McNair indicated the plan is to remain with Noah’s former backup as the Braves’ starter.
Alcorn State (4-2) was initially hoping Harper would simply buy the team a couple of weeks at quarterback, and allow the SWAC’s top defense and kicking game to carry the bulk of the load. Instead, the Braves got far more than they could have imagined at quarterback. In his three starts, Harper has passed for 882 yards and 11 touchdowns without an interception on 84 attempts. He’s also rushed for two more scores and boasts the SWAC’s best passing efficiency rating at 170.2.
It’s nothing of that nature. These guys do a great job of communicating and staying in line with each other. It makes a big difference when you have guys like that. Easily, it can turn sour at the QB position, because you want to be the one to lead the team. But in situations like this, it’s not selfishness when it comes to competing. They’re all helping each other at that position.Coach Fred McNair
Those aren’t exactly fill-in numbers.
Over the past three weeks, Harper was twice named the SWAC’s Offensive player of the week. He also picked up HBCU National player of the week honors after completing 21 of 30 passes for a career-high 396 yards and six touchdowns in a Sept. 28 win over Mississippi Valley State. Last week, Harper added four more touchdowns, including three through the air, in an impressive 35-7 win at Alabama State – the lone SWAC team to defeat the Braves in last season’s run to the HBCU national title game.
Harper, generously listed at 5-11 and 180 pounds, knew he’d have tough shoes to fill when replacing Johnson but also had confidence he could handle the job. It didn’t hurt that Alcorn is one of the most experienced teams in FCS football and ranks among the SWAC’s leaders in total offense and defense. Johnson has been supportive of Harper on and off the field, and they’ve remained close friends.
McNair said quarterbacks coach Pat White, who starred at West Virginia and played briefly in the NFL, has ensured the lines of productive communication and competition also remain open at the position.
“Day in and day out, we put in hard work and it transfers to the field (on Saturdays),” said Harper, who had played sparingly throughout his three seasons as he sat behind Johnson before last month. “(Noah has) taught me a lot over the years I’ve been here. The main thing he’s said is keep the energy going because we’re going to fight through adversity throughout the games. The team looks at me.”
Now, the entire league is looking at Harper.
After watching Harper guide the offense to a 28-0 lead in the first half last week in Montgomery, Alabama State coach Donald Hill-Eley said it’s rare for SWAC teams to have Alcorn’s quality of quarterback depth. Whereas Johnson is a mobile quarterback who makes phenomenal plays on the move with his arm, Harper is comfortable picking defenses apart from the pocket, and scrambling when necessary.
(Noah has) taught me a lot over the years I’ve been here. The main thing he’s said is keep the energy going because we’re going to fight through adversity throughout the games. The team looks at me.Felix Harper
“He just extends plays and is constantly looking downfield so your defensive fits can’t leave,” Hill-Eley said of Harper. “He hurt us a little bit with guys looking back at him and losing their receivers. Anytime you’ve got one great quarterback in this conference, it’s great. But when you’ve got two, it’s unbelievable. And both of those guys are great QBs moving the ball and getting things done.”
Arkansas-Pine Bluff coach Cedric Thomas was an assistant on Alcorn State’s staff three years ago when Harper arrived on campus as a freshman. Thomas recalled how Harper ran the scout team offense during his redshirt season with the same flashes of the skill and poise he’s playing with now.
But what most impresses Thomas about Harper is the patience he’s had to develop behind Johnson without ever losing confidence in his ability or looking to transfer elsewhere. The only knock on Harper at the time he was recruited out of Georgia was his lack of size as a traditional quarterback.
“All praise to Coach McNair for (signing) the kid, because when you look at him physically, he doesn’t overwhelm you,” Thomas said of Harper. “But when you look at the film and just the leadership part when he and his family came in, he’s just a (legitimate) quarterback. He acts like a quarterback and he carries himself like a quarterback. If that kid was 6-3 or 6-4, I don’t think he’d be in this conference. So it says a lot that he stayed and waited his turn, and now he’s reaping the blessings for it.”
Any perceived lack of size is hardly hindering Harper from having a major impact on the field.
“I feel like size doesn’t matter,” Harper said. “It’s all about how you work each and every day, and the time you put in. I’ve been playing since I was a little kid, so the work ethic that Noah and I have is very good, and it translates to the field.”
McNair and the Braves have been in this position before. Three years ago, Alcorn State lost senior All-SWAC quarterback John Gibbs Jr. to an injury during the season and Lenorris Footman took over and finished up as one of the conference’s most productive signal-callers. And when Footman got hurt two years ago, it was Johnson who stepped in and kept the Braves rolling to division and league titles.
Unfortunately, history repeated itself – again.
Fortunately, the Braves had someone else ready.
I played the position before. I’ve coached it. I understand the frustration it is to lose a job by injury. But at the same time, I have to be a team player. And with the way this team is going now, the way it’s rolling and winning, Felix is doing a great job.Coach Fred McNair
“Feels like we’re just continuing the trend,” McNair said. “I’ve been through these quarterback situations before. Normally, when you lose a starting quarterback, the backup always comes in and plays his role. Right now, that’s what Felix is doing and doing an excellent job at it. We prepare these guys every week to play, because who knows when it’s the next guy up? He’ll start until Noah gets back.”
And then what?
McNair thought for a second after the question was asked.
“If a kid is playing well, he stays in there until something happens,” McNair declared. “I played the position before. I’ve coached it. I understand the frustration it is to lose a job by injury. But at the same time, I have to be a team player. And with the way this team is going now, the way it’s rolling and winning, Felix is doing a great job.”
These days, Alcorn State’s quarterback dilemma is a luxury to have.