Notre Dame football transfer Thomas Harper hopes versatility elevates defense this fall

Justin Frommer
ND Insider
Oklahoma State safety Thomas Harper (13) prior to an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022, in Stillwater, Okla. (AP Photo/Brody Schmidt)

SOUTH BEND — When Thomas Harper decided to transfer from Oklahoma State to Notre Dame, he started watching game film from the Irish 2022 season. There was one defensive play that stood out.

Late in Notre Dame's 35-14 upset over No. 4 Clemson Nov. 5, in South Bend, Irish nickelback TaRiq Bracy shot into the backfield untouched on a corner blitz to sack Tiger quarterback D.J. Uaigalelei. That sack, Bracy's lone of the year, peaked Harper's interest.

"(Bracy) made a lot of plays," Harper said during his first appearance in front of the Notre Dame media Friday. "I watched that game multiple times and that was a huge play."

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To Harper, that play was more than 7-yard loss in a game the Irish had firmly in control. It was a vision of what the he could accomplish in Notre Dame's defensive scheme.

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound safety/nickleback was more of a cover guy and run-stopper. Watching how Notre Dame, and defensive coordinator Al Golden, used Bracy appealed to Harper's versatility.

"(Bracy) excelled at that (versatility), especially perimeter run game," Harper said. "He set the edge, got off blocks. Those are things I had to do at Oklahoma State and feel like I can do (here)."

Oklahoma State defenders Thomas Harper (13) and Jabbar Muhammad (7) celebrate an interception during the second half of a 36-25 win at Baylor on Saturday.

In Harper, who committed to Notre Dame on Jan. 6 as a grad transfer, the Irish are getting a do-it-all player that can be used all over the secondary and has produced at a high level. He's seems like an ideal candidate to step in an emulate Bracy, who is entering the NFL Draft.

In four years at Oklahoma State Harper tallied 64 total tackles, five for a loss and two interceptions. His senior season was cut to seven games after a right labrum injury against Baylor that required surgery.

Per Pro Football Focus, Harper took most of his snaps as OSU's third cornerback in the slot, Bracy's position. He also spent time at free safety. Notre Dame has a potential opening there as well with Northwestern All-American portal transfer Brandon Joseph declaring for this year's NFL Draft after one season with the Irish.

"I had two (defensive) coordinators at Oklahoma State (Jim Knowles and Derek Mason) and in both of those defenses my roles were a little bit different," Harper said. "Having that background, last year I was asked to be in the run fit and do those things as well as cover. Kind of similar to here."

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When it comes to playing nickel, or slot cornerback, Harper said his strengths relate to his footwork and quickness dating back to his high school days in Knoxville, Tenn. where he played a lot of wide receiver. In other words, versatility.

"(You) have to be able to tackle, cover the quickest receivers," Harper said. "You still have to be a safety knowing how to read formations and knowing what to expect. You have to have some sort of quick twitch. That just falls into the versatility category, because you have to be able to do a lot of things."

When Harper visited Notre Dame after entering the portal, he mostly talked Xs-and-Os with the coaching staff, he said. Their pitch was about getting Harper on the field as much as possible, no matter if it was at nickel or safety.

With one college season left, that matched Harper's goals of showing off his entire skill-set.

"The mindset was more of a business decision as far as one more year," Harper said. "I am looking for somewhere that can maximize my potential and get me that next step I need to go to the (NFL). I feel like it was a trade-off. (Notre Dame) can help me and I can help this team any way possible."

That includes intellectually. Over the past few years, Harper said he has gotten back into reading books, but not just any genre. His interests are geared toward "self-help" works.

His favorite, "The Servant: A Simple Story About the True Essence of Leadership" by James C. Hunter, has helped bolster his voice on the field.

"It talks about being a leader," he said, "and to lead you have to serve. That opened my eyes to leadership. (The book) was talking about how every great leader serves somebody. (There is) a difference between being a power figure bossing people around versus having authority with someone and being someone they look up to who actually leads them."

The book was recommended by Harper's older brother, Devin, who was given a copy by an NFL coach during his draft process. Devin Harper was eventually picked in the sixth round of last year's draft by the Dallas Cowboys. He played three games as a rookie linebacker.

Going through the portal process, Thomas frequently called his sibling for guidance.

"He tells me what the safeties are doing, what (NFL teams) are looking for in safeties," Harper said. "I take that and apply everything he says. If I don't have those skill sets or tendencies, I make sure that it is something I work on."

That's where the leadership book came in. Now, Harper hopes his voice will hold weight during his lone Notre Dame season.