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Chris Harper brings diverse background to Seahawks offense
Chris Harper hasn't always been a wide receiver.
He has, however, always had a knack for making plays with the football in his hands.
The Seahawks' 2013 fourth-round draft pick has played just about every position on the offensive side of the football. First he starred at running back for Collegiate High School in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas. After one season at Collegiate, he transferred to nearby Northwest High School where he continued to put up impressive numbers on the ground and also saw time at quarterback.
Harper, who now measures at 6-foot-1 and 234 pounds - 14 pounds thicker than the next-bulkiest wide receiver on the Seahawks roster (Phil Bates, 220), was recruited at running back, quarterback, wide receiver and even at safety and linebacker out of high school. But it was at quarterback for the University of Oregon where Harper would initially continue his football career.
"We ran a pure spread offense," said Seahawks All Pro/Pro Bowl center Max Unger, who played with Harper in Ducks green and yellow in 2008. "He was a real mobile quarterback and was basically another running back with the ball once they got it into his hands. That's what they really liked about him."
The "they" that Unger is referring to would be then-Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti and then-Oregon offensive coordinator Chip Kelly, who likely saw Harper's combination of size, strength, field vision, and ability to run through would-be tacklers as the perfect fit for their offensive attack. Harper became Oregon's first player in eight years to run, pass and catch a touchdown in the same season.
However, Harper would play just five games as signal caller for the Ducks. A shoulder injury led Harper to question his future at the position. He admitted to a wavering confidence in his shoulder's strength, so Harper talked to coach Bellotti about making the switch from quarterback to wideout.
"I’ve always been natural at catching the ball," Harper said shortly after learning the Seahawks made him the No. 123 overall selection in this year's draft. "Just learning how to run routes and things like that have become more natural over time. I have only been playing receiver for almost three years, so I’m still new, but it feels way more natural now than when I first moved."
The reason why the position feels so much more natural for Harper now is because he excelled at the spot in three seasons at Kansas State University. Yes, you read that right. Harper transferred to Kansas State after one season with the Ducks in Eugene. He wanted to be closer to home, and Kansas State provided him with that opportunity.
With the Wildcats, Harper grabbed 123 balls for 1,734 yards and 12 touchdowns in 32 starts - 20 at split end and 12 at flanker. He averaged nearly 66 yards receiving per game his senior season and was named second-team All-Big 12 by the league’s coaches.
Head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider constantly talk about going after players with unique qualities or characteristics to their game. Harper's background as a running back/quarterback turned wide receiver clearly fits that Carroll-Schneider mold.
"He gives us a guy that is a big, strong, physical receiver, different from the guys that we have," Carroll said the night they wrapped up their 2013 NFL Draft. "He played really in a run-oriented offense and didn't get as many balls as some of the teams that throw the ball all over the yard. He runs real well and plays the ball real well. He makes catches with guys hanging all over him, so we really like that kind of element that he brings to us."
For the Seahawks, Harper's measurables, a willingness to initiate contact, a strong lower body that can handle a cornerback's press off the line of scrimmage and an ability to see defenses as a quarterback sees them translates into a player who can blossom into a productive playmaker given the right situation.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the best,” said Assistant Director of Pro Personnel Trent Kirchner. “That’s one of the things the coaches said about him is that once he gets in a room with other pros, they think he’s going to really elevate his game. That he’s going to be pushed by the other players."
Seattle has quite the crop of receivers to do that pushing. From the accomplished resumes of Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin to the relentless work ethic of Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate, Harper will find himself consistently pushed in a program that loves to compete.
"We expect him to be able to make the big catches on the outside," Carroll said. "We don’t see him as a slot guy, we see him as an outside receiver. He has some real special qualities that we’re hoping we’ll learn about and make sure that we can make use of."
As for Unger's analysis of the club's newest wideout, he admits he didn’t track Harper very closely following their 2008 season together with the Ducks. The very next year Unger went to the Seahawks in the second round of the draft and it wasn’t until Unger's alma mater squared off against Harper's Wildcats in the 2013 Fiesta Bowl that he again took notice of the former quarterback he used to deliver shotgun snaps to.
"I just remember he caught a ton of balls in that game for Kansas State," Unger said. "He was obviously a cornerstone of their offense. He's a talented kid. He's displayed that. I haven't seen him in a while, so it'll be cool to see him again."