It’s looking like Southern won’t have to face Noah Johnson, the reigning Southwestern Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year, when the Jaguars take on Alcorn State in a monumental game between SWAC unbeatens.
That might not be such a good thing, considering the alternative.
The Braves haven’t missed a beat at quarterback with redshirt junior Felix Harper stepping in as starter for the past four games. He’s thrown for 1,279 yards and 18 touchdowns with only two interceptions to give the Jaguars coaching staff and defense plenty to think about before they kick off at 2 p.m. Saturday at Spinks-Casem Field.
Alcorn coach Fred McNair hasn’t ruled out Johnson’s return from a shoulder injury suffered Sept. 14 in a 17-14 loss to McNeese State, but Johnson hasn’t taken a snap since the second quarter of that game and appears unlikely to play.
Harper, a 5-foot-11, 180-pound redshirt junior from Fairburn, Georgia, has completed 64.2% of his passes (86 of 134) as the Braves have won all four of his starts.
“I always play like this,” Harper said matter of factly. “I thank God and my coaches for the opportunity and my teammates for believing in me. I work hard every day and try to bring it to the field. The first game when Noah got injured, it took some time to get it together, but once I got into a groove my teammates believed in me, and it gave me more confidence in myself.”
Harper took over midway through the second quarter of that game and completed 13 of 28 for 132 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He hasn’t thrown a pick since then. He hit 21 of 30 passes for 396 yards and six TDs against Mississippi Valley State and in the Braves' last outing he hit 16 of 21 for 324 yards and five scores.
“He can throw the football,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “He’s a dual threat, a good runner who makes good decisions. Best thing is they take pressure off of him because they’re able to run the ball. He can take his time. You have to make them one-dimensional and it’s a challenge.”
Harper is not nearly the running threat Johnson is. He’s netted 53 yards rushing and two touchdowns but has been sacked 10 times.
“He’s a very humble kid,” McNair said. “He tries to do everything the right way. He loves the game of football and tries to make the game perfect. He throws the ball well and he can run. He’s got the whole package.”
Harper said he feels comfortable now that he’s more than a month into his new role. He said Johnson and the coaching staff have helped him handle the new load, as has experience — he's in his fourth season in the program.
“Noah told me the main thing I have to have is energy on and off the field,” Harper said. “During the game everybody looks up to me how I carry myself. I try to show lots of energy to keep them up to playing on the level I’m playing. We have to play as a unit to get the job done.”
Coming off the bench against McNeese State caused some butterflies, but his confidence has grown incrementally each week.
“Coach McNair told me ‘Settle down, it’s just an organized practice,' ” Harper said. “We tried to get the win, but we came up short. My play showed the coaches I’d be able to get the job done. Next man up, as the coaches say. We take that serious. There’s another quarterback behind me are ready if I go down. You have to take practice, film everything very seriously.”
“I have to learn to speak up more and be a better leader. As the backup I didn’t talk as much. As the starting quarterback the whole team looks up to me. I have to show my character.”
Harper is wary of the Jaguars defense, which is loaded with veterans who will try to shake up the inexperienced quarterback.
“They have a great defense,” he said. “We’ve had a tough time with them the past two seasons. They are going to pressure me. We have to be able to throw the ball against them. We’re going to come to play.”