Safety looks to lead

No matter how much talent you run out onto the field, without effective leadership a defense will underachieve every time. Last year's emotional leader for Alabama was Derrick Pope. This year several players will vie for that role. <br><br>"Somebody has got to step up and be a leader on the field," Roman Harper explained.

More than most sports, football is a game where players often "wait their turn," deferring to older athletes, preferably seniors, when available. Because of his fiery leadership on the field, Derrick Pope will have his hand- and foot-prints enshrined at the base of Denny Chimes soon.

But Pope is now gone, trying his hand at professional football. And other players will have to step up.

Harper commented, "In the Auburn game DeMeco Ryans and I said some things to try and fire some people up, and I think it worked. (After falling behind in the first half) we played hard the rest of the way."

As Bama fans will painfully recall, the Tigers came out and basically jumped on Alabama early in that game, scoring 18 first-quarter points. In the second period television cameras caught Harper and Ryans getting in the faces of their defensive teammates, "encouraging" them to play harder.

What did you say, Roman?

"I don't really remember exactly what I said," he replied laughing. "It was a heat-of-the moment type thing."

Translation: there was some "colorful" language thrown around, with Harper and Ryans challenging their teammates to dig deeper. "The players understand we were trying to get fired up," Harper said. "We understand how football works. There's a lot of love on this team."

This season Roman Harper will work at free safety.

As a fourth-year junior, Harper will be expected to assume more of an active leadership role among his teammates. But that's not the only change facing the Prattville native. On the pre-spring roster he's been moved from strong safety, where he started all of last season, to free.

But according to Head Coach Mike Shula, the adjustment won't be difficult. "Our two safeties have been interchangeable, so that's not really that big of a move," Shula said.

Looking back on the disappointing 2003 season, Harper thinks the loss to Auburn mirrored what happened on too many Saturdays.

"We came up short, like happened in so many games last year," he said. "We've got to continue to work."

That was the bad news. The good news is that Harper and his teammates are determined to improve, translating effort to production and turning Ls into Ws. "We fought hard even in the losses," Harper said. "We've just got to play better. We missed a lot of tackles in too many games. We've got to correct that. We've got to continue to work and get better."

Harper credits his head coach and Shula's calm demeanor for holding the team together. Too often the squad didn't play well in the first half, but there were no tirades or thrown chairs in the halftime lockerroom. Just an attention to detail and talk about how to improve.

"Coach Shula is always honest with us," Harper related. "At halftime (against Auburn) we had played the worst football you can pretty much play. We missed tackles, easy tackles--flat-out missed them. Just ‘being real' with us helped us to understand that as bad as we had played, we were still right in the game. We needed one or two plays, and we could get the momentum."

With 111 tackles to his credit (second best on the team), Harper turned in his share of plays. But for most of the season the ultimate goal of a defensive back--intercepting a pass--eluded him. However, with Auburn driving late in the second quarter for what would have been a devastating score, Harper came up with an interception in the Tide endzone to squelch the drive.

Harper (#41) makes the tackle versus Tennessee. (Barry Fikes photo)

"I had the ball tipped right to me," Harper recalled. "I made a diving catch at it. I thought they might call me out of bounds, but the ref made the right call."

"The turnover was big for us," Harper continued. "I was excited for the team, trying at that point to give us a chance to win. Get something started before the half. Lo and behold, we come out in the second half and run the kickoff back, so I guess it did provide a little momentum."

Harper and Charlie Peprah are roommates, and you'd better believe that he'd been catching flack for his lack of interceptions. Of course it only made it worse that Peprah led the Tide team in INTs.

"It was great to finally have one come my way," Harper acknowledged. "You don't know how bad I needed that one. The season was winding down. The players were on me bad. They had started to call me nicknames. I'm not going to talk about that...

"The interception helped. It got the monkey off my back. But I would have given it back in a heartbeat to trade it for a win."

Returning to his original point, from Harper's point of view the Tide defense is perfectly capable of making big, momentum-changing plays. Last year they just didn't make enough.

Too often last year for his taste Harper was forced to leave the field following a loss.

He explained, "Those plays were big, but we need to make more plays like that. We just need anything. We've got to continue to work and get better.

Harper arrived on campus three years ago a fast but relatively thin athlete. Since then he's added layers of bulk, approaching 200 pounds. But he thinks he can be bigger still.

"Roman is a bigger, tougher guy," Shula explained. "If there is a guy that you want at strong safety, he's that type."

Extra muscle will help in run support, but with the possible exception of Ole Miss and Hawaii, the Tide defense played hard most of the season. Harper and this teammates just need to be consistent and play with intensity every down.

"Actually, there were a lot of licks being passed on the field last year," Harper said. "We're proud of that, but we can't keep making the mental errors. We can't keep missing tackles. Those really came back to hurt us."

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