Chris Harper is leaning against a shaded wall at Snyder Family Stadium. It’s a blistering day in early August, and he is letting his body take a break. But his mind is still on football and the season that begins on Saturday against Missouri State.
He tilts his head and stares at the field where he will play seven more games in a Kansas State uniform. He pictures himself catching passes and beating defenders for touchdowns.
Those images provide a lot of motivation.
“One thousand yards,” Harper says confidently, “that’s my goal. That’s what I want before I leave here. I know I can get it.”
Harper, a senior receiver from Wichita, makes it sound so easy. He always does. Harper is a born talker. He isn’t afraid to speak his mind in front of media – no matter the subject.
So expressing confidence in his skills is second nature.
Harper started his college career at Oregon as a quarterback for one of the most prolific offenses around. When that didn’t work out, he transferred closer to home after one season and catches passes instead of throwing them.
Adjusting to the new position took time, but 337 yards as a sophomore then 547 yards as a junior has made him K-State’s top receiver.
But he’s never put up big numbers.
Only five K-State receivers have eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in a season.
“I realize it will be difficult, but it’s time for me to try and break a few records,” Harper said. “I didn’t really have a goal when I first got here, because I was still learning the position. I was just trying to do the best I could. Things are different now.”
Offensive coordinator Dana Dimel watched Harper grow from a “part-time player who wanted to catch a few passes” into a “really balanced receiver that helps in the run game and pass games.”
You have to be the latter to line up wide for K-State. Outside quarterback Collin Klein, the Wildcats rarely design their offense around single players. Everyone has to block. Everyone is an option in the passing game. The team is always more important than its players’ stats. That’s the Bill Snyder way.
Still, when asked if he viewed Harper as a potential 1,000-yard receiver, Dimel nodded.
“Chris is talented enough, there is no doubt about it,” Dimel said. “He has the skills to get 1,000 yards, but you never know what direction we are going to have to take to win each game. If we are able to throw the ball as well as we think we might be able to, I can definitely see him doing that.
“But, again, you’ve got spread the wealth.… Our goal in games is for us to be hitting on all cylinders where seven to nine different guys are catching the ball.”
Harper will need to average close to 77 receiving yards, with a bowl game included, to join the club.
Brandon Banks last accomplished the feat in 2008 and Jordy Nelson holds the record with 1,606 yards.
But Banks and Nelson had big seasons in Ron Prince’s system. Three players have eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards while playing for Snyder – Darnell McDonald, James Terry and Quincy Morgan (twice).
One prominent name missing is Kevin Lockett, K-State’s career receiving yards leader (3,032).
“My senior year, just in the regular season, I had 882 yards,” Lockett said. “We only played 11 games and they didn’t count bowl games, so I was at a disadvantage. Now they play more games and count bowls. Had they counted my bowl game my senior year I would have had 1,017 yards. So I consider myself a 1,000-yard receiver even if the record books don’t.”
Lockett used the 1,000-yard mark as motivation heading into the 1997 Cotton Bowl and caught seven passes for 135 yards and a touchdown.
Can Harper use the same motivation to excel over the length of a season? Lockett thinks it’s a possibility. Not only is Harper an improved receiver, Klein has become a better passer. A year ago he battled rib injuries late in the season, affecting his throwing motion.
He is healthy now, and spent the summer perfecting his mechanics. Defenses will likely key on his running, which may create big-play opportunities downfield.
“For anyone to get 1,000 yards in Snyder’s system, they are going to have to take advantage of any throw that comes their way,” Lockett said. “You can’t have any drops, and you have to take advantage of every touchdown opportunity. With their running game, K-State receivers will be one-on-one deep down the field this year. Winning those battles is how you pile up yards and make plays. But it’s up to them to win them.”
Harper expects to be open often. Often enough to make enough catches to impress NFL scouts and reach his personal goal.
“I really think I am going to get the ball a lot,” Harper said. “That’s how I go into every game.”
With that in mind, he spent the majority of his offseason working with Klein, throwing and catching on weekends when many of their teammates weren’t around. They built a strong rapport.
He also started yoga in hopes of improving flexibility, and speed drills to improve at yards after catches.
Will that work be enough to get 1,000 receiving yards?
“When I look back at the things I did last year, it makes me realize I could have already done it,” Harper said. “I had opportunities, I just messed them up. I didn’t play the way I needed to. I wanted 1,000 yards then, but this year I will be disappointed if I don’t get it. I’m a better player now and know I am going to get the opportunities. If I don’t get it, it’s going to be on me.”