OSU football: How Thomas Harper is proving his value as a young player on a veteran defense
STILLWATER — From a distance, the only similarities in Thomas and Devin Harper is the name on the back of their Oklahoma State jerseys.
Devin is a 6-foot, 240-pound redshirt senior linebacker. Thomas is a 5-foot-10, 178-pound true sophomore defensive back.
But with a closer look, you’ll see more of a likeness. Facial features, speech patterns and other mannerisms.
“When they trot off the field, they have similarities, so we give ‘em some heck about that,” linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez said. “It’s all love here with the twins.”
Oddly enough, if Devin hadn’t already been on the roster, OSU coaches might have never given Thomas a look in recruiting.
Thomas was a 165-pound receiver/cornerback rated by Rivals.com as a two-star recruit coming out of Karns High School in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Cowboys outdueled the likes of Navy and Tennessee-Chattanooga for him.
Yet here we are, less than two years after he signed with the Pokes, watching the younger Harper force his way into the lineup.
OSU coach Mike Gundy and defensive coordinator Jim Knowles realized in the spring of 2019 that Harper was a ballplayer and would need to be on the field, even though the Cowboys were loaded at cornerback.
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But they found ways to get him involved in a backup role, and on special teams. This season, he moved from cornerback to safety and has been even more prevalent in the lineup.
Mostly, he has rotated in behind Tanner McCalister at the nickelback spot, but against Baylor in the last game of the regular season, Harper started in that position while McCalister shifted to the safety position played by the injured Tre Sterling.
Presumably, Sterling will be healthy for the Cheez-It Bowl against Miami at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday in Orlando, Florida, and Harper will be back to playing on a rotational basis.
But he’ll be playing, because he’s proven that he’s too talented to leave on the sideline.
“He’s developed tremendously on and off the field,” said cornerback Jarrick Bernard-Converse, who spent the last two seasons starting in the position Harper now plays. “I feel like he’s gained a lot more experience, and he knows more about the game now.
“He has tremendous ability. He’s smart. He can cover really well, and tackle. I knew when he first came in that he was gonna be a guy. He’s really special.”
Harper got his first career interception against TCU. Even though he’s not a full-time starter, he is eighth on the team in tackles with 27 stops, 24 of which have been solo.
And as one of the few young players on a veteran defense, Harper has been able to absorb information — even if that means occasionally listening to his big brother.
“It’s been very impactful, with them having so much knowledge of the game,” Harper said. “They’ve all played a whole bunch of snaps. I’m just learning from them and listening and soaking it all in.”
One of the most important things he’s learned from the older players is how to watch film.
“Last season, I didn’t really take the extra step of watching film and really dive in deep,” Harper said. “But having those older players telling me film study is just as important as on-the-field work, that has helped me tremendously.
“I watch film every day now. It makes so much of a difference. I feel like my mind and how I see the game has been my greatest improvement.”