Despite all the accolades there’s still a lot to prove for Harper and his teammates heading into the 2005 season.
Last season as injuries mounted for the Crimson Tide on offense, the one saving grace was the play of the defense and in particular Harper. A second-team All-SEC selection last season, Harper finished the year with 77 tackles and three interceptions. He also proved to be an iron man on the field, playing an amazing 94 snaps against Minnesota in the Music City Bowl and finished with 807 plays for the season.
With nine starters returning from a unit that allowed just 245.5 total yards per game, Harper said that the team is poised to improve on that number this season. Building depth will be an important part of that for Alabama this season in a year when seniors dominate the first 11 players on the field.
“I think our defense, overall we have a lot of talent,” Harper said. “We’ve got it all across the board. Everywhere you look is a good player. It promotes a lot of competition within ourselves at different positions and then as a unit. You have to fight to play. It’s just like in a household full of boys and girls you have to fight for some food. There’s not a lot of plays being made, maybe 50 or 60 snaps, and somebody is making the play. You’ve got to go out there and be hungry or you’re not going to be fed. There’s a lot of competition going on and that’s probably what makes us better.”
While the strength of the unit is in the linebacker corps, Harper said that he feels like the defensive backs are the leaders of the defense heading into the season.
“Of course I’m going to say the DB’s,” Harper said. “We’ve been here the longest. We’ve been playing the most and three of us have been starting for three years now. We’ve been playing for a long time together and we just have to lock it down in the back. Hopefully we’ll make teams run on us and run into those great linebackers we’ve got.”
Something Alabama must improve on this season to take the next step is forcing turnovers. In 2004 the Crimson Tide had just 12 interceptions and forced 14 fumbles. While the number isn’t drastically low, Harper said that they need to get better this season at making the easy plays.
“We have to prove that we can actually catch the ball when it’s thrown to us,” Harper said. “We’ve got to have more interceptions. We have to force more turnovers and have more big plays defensively. If we can do that we’ll start getting more notice around the nation as a better defense. Right now we stop people, but we want to be able to dominate and give our offense more opportunities to put up more points.”
Last season Alabama lost games to Tennessee, Auburn and Minnesota by less than eight points, something that was a no-no of Alabama teams in the 60's and 70's when they consistently won close game after close game. Those days are gone now and the simple truth is that Alabama isn’t a team to be feared as they once used to be. Harper said that his team knows there will be some close games this season and he’s looking for a few good bounces to help things out.
“We’ve lost close game after close game,” Harper said. “We were like this close. Everybody always gives us the excuse ‘you were so close’. Eventually we had some things go wrong for us. We understand that. The ball always didn’t roll our way. You have to look at it like gambling, eventually something good has to happen for you. The dice are going to hit for us eventually. Now we’re going in with the attitude that we’re going to hit this time and the roll of the dice is going to be good for us. We understand that and we’re going to keep a positive attitude.”
While most would think Tennessee would be the game Alabama is most pointing towards, and likely that’s the case for the fans, the two games that stand out to Harper are easy in his mind. Having the chance to face Florida and Chris Leak is big for him and he’s also hoping for some last-minute revenge against his bitter rival.
“Of course everybody is looking at the Florida game,” Harper said. “The big game is the Middle Tennessee game because it’s the first game. We’ve got to get started early because if we can get rolling early it’s going to be good for us. Then you get towards Florida and they come to us. That’s going to be a big game for us. I really wish we could have gone to Florida to see what the atmosphere is like down there because I’ve heard nothing but good things about it. I’m just real excited to see them and play against a great quarterback like Chris Leak and of course a great coach. I’m looking forward to playing against Auburn also. I really want to go play well against them. We haven’t beat them since I’ve been playing so I’m really looking forward to that one.”