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senior day 2023

‘Everything’s a learning experience’: Thomas Harper makes the most of his season at Notre Dame

| Friday, November 17, 2023

Ari Denning | The Observer
Irish graduate student safety Thomas Harper smothers an NC State pass-catcher during Notre Dame’s 45-24 win at Carter-Finley Stadium on Sep. 9.

After four seasons at Oklahoma State that saw him compile 93 tackles and a pair of interceptions, safety Thomas Harper decided that the time was right for a change.

“It was a mixture of things. I think it was kind of just learning from some new coaches, trying to learn new things and add different things to my toolbox. I think it was the schedule — I wanted to just showcase my ability versus different opponents,” Harper said about his reasoning for transferring to Notre Dame as a graduate student. “Mostly just new scenery and just learning new things.”

Since arriving in South Bend in the spring, Harper has slotted into the Notre Dame secondary perfectly, playing a key role for an elite unit that has seemingly gotten better with every game.

“It’s been great. I think we have one of the best, if not the best, defenses in the nation — secondaries as well,” Harper said about playing alongside the other Irish defensive backs. “Everybody kind of has their own playstyle, and we have a lot of vets on the defense, so being able to learn from Cam [Hart], learn from DJ [Brown], learn from X [Xavier Watts]. Even people younger than me, learn from B-Mo [Benjamin Morrison]. Just learning from everybody and kind of bouncing ideas off each other has been great.”

Harper contributed to the Irish holding their first two opponents — Navy and Tennessee State — to a combined 6 points before breaking out over the ensuing two weeks. He recorded a season-high 7 tackles and broke up 2 passes on the road against NC State and added a sack and forced fumble in his following outing against Central Michigan. That run of strong play has continued as he’s gotten more comfortable with the Irish defense over the course of the season.

“It was kind of smooth,” Harper said about his transition to Notre Dame. “I came here to learn new things and I feel like, throughout the season, I’ve just been learning and learning. And if I made a mistake, I made sure not to make it again. Everything’s a learning experience, so I feel like I’ve grown a lot and learned a lot.”

Harper’s role among Notre Dame’s defensive backs this season has been a unique one. While he’s still relatively new to the Irish, he’s also one of the most experienced players on the defense. He wasted no time in establishing himself as a leader for the unit’s talented young players, focusing on setting a positive example every time he stepped on the field in practice and during games.

“We’ve got a lot of young guys,” Harper said about the Irish defense. “They look up to me, I know that. I know that I have influence, so [I’m] just making sure I do everything the right way — making sure that whenever I’m out there, I’m communicating. That’s a big thing that I’ve been trying to do a lot lately, just communicate and be more vocal.”

The Irish have taken part in several memorable games this season, and Harper described the USC game as his favorite moment at Notre Dame. Playing in a rivalry game under the lights, the Irish dominated all phases en route to a 48-20 victory. Harper finished with 3 tackles and a critical fourth-quarter sack but was even happier to see his teammates rise to the occasion on the biggest stage.

“The defense played so good — every unit played good,” he said. “Just to see all that hard work pay off, and just seeing everybody excited and to execute the way we did, it was probably my most exciting moment here.”

Notre Dame’s season has been something of a roller coaster, but that hasn’t changed the Irish’s mentality as they head into their final home game. Harper came to South Bend to grow as a player and leader, and to help his team win games. He’ll continue pushing toward those goals in the closing stretch of the season.

“Just trying to stay focused,” Harper said about his mindset. “We obviously didn’t expect to be in this situation at the beginning of the year, but we’re here, so [we’re] kind of just making the most of it.”

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