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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame's 193-Pound Nickel Thomas Harper Brings “Twitch and Violence”

August 7, 2023

Marcus Freeman opened Saturday’s practice with one-on-one reps in the red zone, shouting out wide receiver-versus-defensive back matchups.

After a few reps, he called upon safety Thomas Harper to cover Notre Dame slot receiver Chris Tyree, one of college football’s fastest players. 

Tyree stumbled on an inside move and Harper jumped the route for an easy pass breakup. 

“CT is a speedster,” Harper said. “He's more like a Tyreek Hill-type. He's going to outrun you. You’ve got to be careful with him in space. He can cut off angles and stuff like that.”

Harper looked strong in the first rep he took in front of the media in full pads at Notre Dame, despite arriving on campus in January. 

In November, the Oklahoma State graduate transfer underwent right shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, which sidelined him during the first few weeks of spring ball and prevented him from participating in full-contact drills.

During this time, he prioritized his recovery, became a second safeties coach and mastered Al Golden’s defensive schemes. The latter proved challenging to learn given the wide variety of coverage Notre Dame employs compared to Oklahoma State. 

“It was hard, but at the end of the day, I still learned the playbook and got close to my teammates,” Harper said, “and it created that brotherhood. I feel like it was overall a successful spring.”

Coach Chris O’Leary says that Harper trains with the safeties during drills and understands the jobs of the field and boundary safety in a given coverage, but his primary role will be to replace nickel cornerback TaRiq Bracy, who lined up over the slot 395 snaps. 

Harper’s role fits his skillset and experience. In Stillwater, he played 38 career games with 63.6% of his snaps coming when lined up across from the slot or at cornerback. 

In seven games in 2022, he exceeded Bracy’s effectiveness by limiting opposing quarterbacks to a 73.0 NFL passer rating, a 59.4 competition percentage, 9.7 yards per reception and one touchdown.

                            Thomas Harper Snaps by Alignment, per Pro Football Focus

Season Total Snaps Slot Free Safety Box Corner DL
2022 397 259 61 64 12 1
2021 268 117 66 57 21 7
2020 434 261 77 63 12 21
2019 71 2 0 8 60 1

At Notre Dame, the coaching staff expects Harper to split reps at nickel with cornerback Clarence Lewis.

“We expect both of those guys to be huge factors for us,” O’Leary said. “We play a lot of Nickel defense. We see both of those guys as starters because of the way they play the game. That’s been the biggest competition of fall camp.”

This competition may end without a clear winner or loser since both offer different strengths. 

“T-Harp has been playing man over the slot for four years now, and he’s really good at it,” O’Leary said. “C-Lew has really good zone awareness. He’s a physical player. They both bring a little something to the table.”

Harper’s top priority in fall camp is staying healthy, but he must also reacclimate himself to contact after avoiding it for nine months.

Thus far, he’s eased himself into physical plays, but the 193-pound safety is anxious to hit.

On Monday, he even expressed to the media a desire to take on 233-pound running back Audric Estimé in practice.

“Tell him I'm looking for him in the hole, man,” Harper said. “Tell him.” 

Harper's interest in taking on a player with a 40-pound advantage sounds reckless, but his fearless approach and infectious energy are assets to the defense.

“When you’re a nickel team, teams try you in the alley with perimeter play, screens, all that. That’s the first thing you have to be able to stop. His nickel skills, that’s the first thing you see, but you also see him snagging off blocks and making tackles, blitzing with just twitch and violence. 

“That’s an element that he’s going to bring to our team this year that’s going to be fun to watch.”

At the same time, the defense only benefits when he’s on the field, and he’s never played more than 10 games in a season.

He must remain conscious of his frequent size disadvantages and injury history. It’ll hurt the defense if he lays his body on the line against North Carolina State only for him to miss matchups with Ohio State's and USC’s prolific passing offenses.

Of course, the best way to do that may be for him to split reps with Lewis, limiting his opportunities to get hurt.

Harper's mentality sounds difficult to flip off. 

“I'm a competitor. I'm going to put my hat in there,” He said. “I'm not scared of contact. That's a big part of my game. I love contact. That's a big thing for me — not being a liability in the run game…

“When I need to cover, I gotta be a corner. When I need to fit, I gotta be a safety.”

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