Strong safety starts strong

Strong safety Roman Harper knows he and his fellow defensive backs will have their work cut out for them Saturday. Kentucky's hefty QB doesn't just complete passes, he's capable of embarrassing even talented defenses.

Roman Harper explained, "You might think (Jared Lorenzen) is wrapped up, then all of a sudden he'll bounce off the tackler. All of a sudden your man is 30 yards downfield behind you.

"We definitely don't want that to happen. We've got to keep our eyes on our man and stay with him the whole time."

Harper also has key responsibilities versus the run. In his first year starting, he's proven to be an effective tackler. But 270 pounders plus don't often run the option. "Hopefully somebody like Antwan Odom will have the quarterback and the coaches will give me the running back," Harper said laughing. "I have seen (Lorenzen) run the option. We've watched some film, and Kentucky runs the option with him. He's a good enough athlete to do it."

After making a big play on the field, Harper (left) and Charlie Peprah (right) celebrate on the sideline.

Versus wideouts and smaller running backs, Harper hits with the best of them. But "Hefty Lefty" might be another matter. "I'll take my shot if I get a chance, but I don't know if I'm looking forward to it," Harper joked. "He's a big guy. Most of the time receivers aren't that big, and running backs aren't either. It'll be a little different.

"I guess it'll be like hitting "Big Dennis" (Dennis Alexander) or something."

With Lorenzen at quarterback, Kentucky will throw the football all over the field, which presents a challenge for Bama's safeties. Harper commented, "The main deal with (Charles Jones) and me is to make sure everybody is on the same page week in and week out. Communication is key. We need to keep our composure, and when we know we've got to make a play, we've got to step up and make it."

Known mainly as a kick returner, Kentucky's Derek Abney is just as dangerous catching passes. He's currently third in school history in career pass receptions and second in total yardage.

"They say Abney does a little bit of everything for Kentucky," Harper said. "He's a great player, I know that much. He's got to be a good athlete to do all that. He's extremely fast and very elusive. They go to him a lot."

Except for Charles Jones (free safety), Alabama's secondary is relatively young. But so far this season they've shown plenty of grit. Receivers may catch the ball against Alabama, but afterwards they'd better duck. "(Physical play) is something to take pride in," Harper said. "We want to get a reputation for ourselves. We want people to recognize that we're a good unit. We're young, which is a big knock on us. Charley (Jones) is the only one that has been here for awhile. Anthony, Charlie (Peprah) and I came in together.

"Getting to be known is a big thing. We want to get our names out there."

When Harper first arrived on campus, he had height and speed. But he was frankly too skinny for SEC play. Two years of hard work have changed that.

Harper (behind) makes the tackle versus Mississippi State. (Barry Fikes photo)

"I've transformed myself a little bit," he acknowledged. "I've put on a little weight here and there, and I've gotten stronger. I didn't want to slow down, and I don't think I have. I'm just trying to improve every day and work hard."

Secondary Coach Chris Ball commented on his starting safety. "Roman's development has been tremendous. He's got all the tools to be a tremendous defensive back here. Being only a sophomore and being as far along as he is...

"He's really becoming a leader. He's athletic, aggressive and smart. He understands football and has good knowledge of the game. He's got all the intangibles. He hasn't leveled off; he's still getting better. On Saturday he shows up and plays. He never complains."

Like most true freshmen, Harper stepped on campus a tad arrogant, thinking he could play right away. He explained, "That was the main deal coming out of high school. Everybody thinks he's the best coming out of their school. Then you come up here and reality hits. You're not that great. You've still got a lot of learning to do. You've got to brush up on the little things that you probably didn't pay that much attention to in high school. But now you do. Every little step and yard counts."

Once he found his niche at strong safety, Harper has improved steadily. But he says there is still progress to be made. "I want to work on technique coming out of my break. I need to maintain good balance. I need to stay low on tackles. All the little things that you take for granted. You do them, but you're really not doing them to the best of your ability.

"And I want to get better in the weight room. Not lifting that many weights in high school probably came back to haunt me, but now I'm lifting more and I'm getting bigger. It's important to eat right and keep your weight."

Ball has few complaints. "As good a football player as he is, he's twice that as a person. If my son grows up to be another Roman Harper, then I've done a good job."

Last season Harper played a lot as a reserve. He saw action in every game, totaling 42 tackles and two sacks. This season he's picked up where he left off, but there's one nagging problem.

Harper's stat line for interceptions remains empty.

"I'm still waiting on mine," Harper admitted, shaking his head. "I think I would have had the one that Freddie tipped (versus Oklahoma). That one was coming right to me."

After months of hard work in the weight room, Harper looks suited to the role of strong safety.

"He should be worried," Ball said with a big smile. "Roman should be upset about that. I've been getting on him about it. I told him this week we'll put him in a position to get some picks."

It wouldn't be so bad, except Harper and Charlie Peprah are friends and roommates. And Peprah has already gotten one pick this year, returning it for a touchdown against South Florida.

"Let me tell you, Charlie just happens to be in the right place at the right time. I've never seen anything like it. At the beginning of his true freshman year he wouldn't have made those plays, but now it seems like every tipped ball just comes right to him. The next thing you know he's going the other way with it and looking into the camera.

"I'm jealous. But that's my roommate, so I can talk bad about him."

Harper was joking when he said it, but there's no question he wants that first pick. And he wants it yesterday.

"Charlie tells me to be patient, because it's going to come," Harper related. "But I've been playing just as long as he has. Maybe one day."

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