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Bob Lutz: KSU's Harper may be in for a breakout game

  • Published Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012, at 5:14 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Jan. 6, 2012, at 2:44 p.m.

IRVING, Texas — There are days when Chris Harper, Kansas State's leading receiver, looks at his statistics and wonders what they might look like in another offensive system, with a pass-first quarterback.

After all, there's nothing about 39 catches for 565 yards and five touchdowns in 12 games that screams big-time playmaker.

Only seven teams in the country have passed the ball fewer times than Kansas State. And three are Army, Navy and Air Force. What that says about the military academies, I'm not sure. Especially Air Force.

Anyway, K-State has done most of its offensive damage running the football. Quarterback Collin Klein has carried the ball 42 more times (293 to 251) than he's passed it. It's a unique style of offense but it has worked for K-State (10-2), which meets Arkansas (10-2) in Friday night's Cotton Bowl.

Harper, a junior from Wichita Northwest, would love to get his hands on the football more. But he understands the way things operate at Kansas State.

"When I watch some of these teams throw the football all over the place, yeah, I would be lying if I said that wouldn't be fun,'' Harper said. "Anybody would love to play in Houston's offense where they throw the ball 69 times a game or whatever. But that's not what we do and I'm not worried about that.''

Texas Tech (600), Oklahoma (583), Oklahoma State (553) and Texas A&M (537) all have passed the football 500 or more times. Iowa State (484) and Baylor (424) are over 400. Even Kansas has passed the ball 50 more times than the Wildcats.

Given that, Harper's modest numbers gain some clout.

He has been the favorite target of quarterback Collin Klein and has caught at least two passes in every game except one, the regular-season finale against Iowa State when he was shut out.

In fact, in the past two games Harper has two catches for 27 yards after a breakout performance during a 53-50, four-overtime win over Texas A&M in late November. He had four catches for 134 yards and one touchdown.

The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Harper, who has excellent speed, is K-State's version of Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon, except without the gaudy statistics.

"As a football player and competitor you do want the ball in your hands,'' Harper said. "But you know you're ultimately going to get your opportunities in our offense and being a balanced offensive team is going to make you a more successful team in the long run.''

Harper started his college career at Oregon in 2008, where he became the only Ducks player in history to run, pass and catch a touchdown in the same season. He converted from quarterback to wide receiver after five games and during his time at QB he was a bigger threat as a runner than as a passer.

Remind you of somebody?

Klein is Kansas State's leading rusher and one of the most dangerous offensive players in the country with a nose for the end zone.

"Collin is a guy who actually switched positions (from wide receiver) so that shows you a lot about where he's at as far as putting the team ahead of everything else goes,'' Harper said. "He's just kept working at it and gotten better and better.''

Klein and Harper first met when they attended Kansas State camps as high school players and their relationship has flourished.

"I've always said and it still holds true that my favorite receiver is the open one,'' Klein said. "A lot of guys on this team have stepped up to make big plays. But Chris is great. He's a very smart player and he understands what we're trying to accomplish in certain schemes. On top of that, he's a really hard worker.''

Harper has had to narrow his game to fit Kansas State's needs. He rarely is asked to utilize his above-average speed and beat a receiver deep because Klein doesn't have a strong-enough arm to get him the ball in those spots.

Even so, Harper has been a big weapon, especially on third down.

"He's still learning,'' said K-State co-offensive coordinator Dana Dimel. "But you could see in the middle of the season that Chris was starting to become more polished as a receiver and beginning to showcase his skills. He has tremendous, tremendous skills and it's getting better all the time. He needs a really good offseason to really step up and have a great senior year.''

Senior year?

What about the final game of his junior season?

Harper could be a huge X factor against Arkansas, especially since the Razorbacks' defense will surely be zoned in on trying to take the running game away from K-State and especially Klein.

K-State coach Bill Snyder has had about a month to prepare, as has Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino. But in these bowl games, Snyder has always had a few offensive tricks up his sleeve.

And in Harper, he has a player capable of making those tricks work. It wouldn't surprise me that, for a game at least, Harper gets a chance to flaunt himself. To let his inner-Justin Blackmon loose.

Check sports columnist Bob Lutz's blog at blogs.kansas.com/lutz. Reach him at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com.

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