DB Thomas Harper mapping out Notre Dame future while on the mend
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Thomas Harper likely won’t be completely healthy until some point this spring.
The Oklahoma State graduate transfer didn’t provide a timeline for his recovery when he met with Notre Dame reporters for the first time Friday, but he did detail the injury that ended his season with the Cowboys early last year.
Harper, a 5-foot-11, 180-pound defensive back, first felt discomfort in his right shoulder in the fourth game of last season against Baylor on Oct. 1. He remained in the starting lineup for two more games, sat out the Texas game and returned the following week for the Kansas State game. At that point, Harper accepted that he needed to have surgery on the torn labrum in his right shoulder and end his season.
“I felt like it was in my best interest to get surgery and get it done for my health and safety,” Harper said.
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The surgery occurred in November, which means Harper could be limited for at least part of Notre Dame’s spring practices which will start in mid-to-late March. Last year, running back Logan Diggs had surgery on a torn labrum on April 29 and was limited in preseason camp throughout August.
While Harper recovers, he’s envisioning what his future will look like in Notre Dame’s defense. The Irish have left the door open to play nickelback, free safety or both depending on what the secondary needs most. He thanks his versatility for being able to do both.
“My footwork and my coverage ability is good enough to play nickel,” Harper said. “I came in as a corner out of high school, so having that background (helps). The way that I play, I play more like a free safety. I like to look at the quarterback. I like to go make plays on the ball.”
In the last couple months, Harper has spent a lot of time watching film of Notre Dame’s defensive backs last season, particularly TaRiq Bracy playing nickelback. He wants to make that kind of impact for the Irish in 2023.
“He made a lot of plays,” Harper said of Bracy. “The play that stood out the most that he made was a sack versus Clemson. That was a big play in that game. I watched that game multiple times. That was a huge play.”
In Bracy’s final season with the Irish, he totaled six tackles for loss, which was more than starting linebackers Jack Kiser and Marist Liufau had on their own last season. That kind of physicality wasn’t a part of Bracy’s game until late in his career. Harper on the other hand has been told he plays too physically at times.
“One of my goals this spring is I’m trying to gain 10 pounds or so, put on a little bit more muscle mass because that’s kind of how I like to play,” Harper said. “I like to hit and be physical.”
In four seasons at Oklahoma State, Harper tallied 93 tackles, five tackles for loss, eight pass breakups, two interceptions, one forced fumble and one recovered fumble. He averaged 4.3 tackles per game in his seven starts last season.
When Harper went through the recruiting process as a cornerback prospect out of Knoxville (Tenn.) Karns in the 2019 class, he didn’t have a lot of big-time programs pursuing him. Oklahoma State was the first Power Five program to offer him a scholarship. He received some others after committing to the Cowboys but chose not to disclose them publicly. He finished the recruiting cycle rated as a two-star recruit by Rivals.
He received a bit more attention when he entered the transfer portal this offseason.
“It’s totally different,” Harper said of the two different recruitments he experienced. “Not just because of the different schools. The mindset going into it is a lot different than being a freshman or a high schooler. The mindset is more of a business decision as far as one more year.
“I’m looking for somewhere that can maximize my potential and get me that next step I need to go to the league. I feel like it was a tradeoff. They (ND) can help me, and I can help this team any way possible.”
To get a sense for Notre Dame, he made a 24-hour visit and spent a lot of time discussing with Notre Dame’s coaching staff how he would be used in the defense. He was sold on the different ways cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and safeties coach Chris O’Leary could enhance his game.
Harper also knew the exposure he would get at Notre Dame would be different. No longer would Harper be pigeonholed as a Big 12 defensive back. In playing for the Irish, he’ll face teams from three of the Power Five conferences.
He just needs to get healthy first.
“The biggest selling point to me was the schedule,” Harper said. “That was a big thing going into the portal. I wanted to be able to show my abilities against different competition being that I’ve been in the Big 12 for four years.
“I wanted to show some abilities against different competition. Notre Dame's schedule is all over the place: Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC. You kind of get a little dose of everything.”
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