Not wanting to stifle competition, the coaches are reluctant to talk specifics right now. But Secondary Coach Chris Ball acknowledged Harper's situation. "He's heading in the direction of starting for us at safety," Ball said. "Roman's got a lot of work left to do on the little things. But he's learning the defense and he's doing what we're asking him to do. That's 95 percent of the deal. And he's athletic enough to get it done. Roman's got a great chance if he keeps progressing."
Combining athleticism and intelligence, Harper's goal was to start next season. But he didn't expect things to move this quickly. "I was hoping to move up to No. 1," Harper admitted. "But no, I can't exactly say I expected it. I knew I had Charles (Jones) in front of me last year. I thought that maybe if I moved over (to strong safety), then maybe I could start. When I saw at the start of spring drills that the coaches had already moved me, that was cool."
A former option quarterback in high school, Harper redshirted his first year at Alabama, getting stronger and adjusting to playing defense. Last season he participated in every game, earning a start against Hawaii. In mainly a back-up role Harper took a total of 278 snaps, finishing with 42 tackles and two sacks for minus 11 yards. He also had two pass break-ups, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
That Harper is starting is no surprise, though his size (6-0, 186) seems more suited to cornerback or free safety. But the Tide coaches obviously want to get their best athletes on the field. "I did put on some weight (Harper was listed at 180 last spring), so I guess it makes me look better for strong safety."
Senior Charles Jones (5-10, 183) will man the free safety slot. "I am at least bigger than Charles," Harper pointed out laughing. "I guess you can call me the ‘bigger than Charles safety.' Of course that's not much of a big thing. It's not too hard being bigger than Charles. It's cool, though.
"The ‘bigger than Charles safety,' that's what I'll call myself."
Harper was joking, of course. He recognizes that added bulk will help in tackling, and there is every reason to assume the extra weight will come as he matures. "He's okay," Ball said of Harper's size. "I'm not big on my starters weighing a certain thing. He's definitely got to get stronger. But the good thing about our (spring) schedule is we'll get done in March, so the kids will still have April and May and June and July to get stronger. I think Roman will be strong enough.
"He's definitely athletic enough to handle the position, but he needs to concentrate on his strength in the off season."
Just a few seasons back, strong safeties were viewed as really lightweight linebackers, willing and eager to rush the line of scrimmage to provide run support. But the modern passing game has changed that. Ball explained that next year's starting cornerbacks will be Bama's top two cover athletes in the secondary. And he expects to place numbers three and four at safety.
Does that mean Harper has yet another name? Instead of "strong safety," should fans call him the "No. 3 cover athlete" on the team? "I'll take that," he replied. "That's not that bad."
"Safeties are really just cornerbacks that come up and play the run faster," Harper continued. "There's no big difference. Everybody in the secondary has to be able to cover. If you can't cover, you can't play. That's just the bottom line with every defense, and it'll always be that way. (Moving to strong safety) will take some adjusting, but it's not that much different."
Ball is satisfied with his new starter. "Roman is working at strong safety, and Charles Jones is at free. There isn't a whole lot of difference in the two positions in our schemes. One (the strong safety) lines up to the tight end side, or the strength of the offensive formation. The other lines up ‘weak.' So there's not a whole lot of difference. Either one of them could be a drop-down player, coming up for run support."
"We think of ourselves as playing the pass just as well as we do the run," Harper added. "You've got to be able to make the play when you get there. With a lot of cornerbacks, they don't tackle as well as safeties, but they probably cover better. That probably distinguishes between a safety and a corner."
Last season's defensive coaching was divided differently, with a separate coach handling safeties and cornerbacks for the Tide. But in 2003 Ball will be responsible for the entire secondary.
"I thought it would be a big difference," Harper acknowledged, "but it's really not. I was thinking that Coach Ball wouldn't be able to see everything as well. But he does a good job with it. I guess it's because he's used to it. He's always handled safeties and cornerbacks.
"With two coaches you get more one-on-one coaching, but as long as the coach is still there to talk to and answer questions, it's the same thing."
(So far this spring the Tide defensive backs have been divided into two sections for drill work, with Ball coaching the scholarshipped group that includes Harper.)
A casual fan watching practice wouldn't guess that Chris Ball is actually a 16-year coaching veteran. With his hat turned backwards and his nose always stuck in the middle of the action, the new secondary coach works hard to communicate with his athletes.
"I have noticed that," Harper said, as he talked about Ball's on-the-field demeanor. "I think we've got the coolest one out there. He's a good guy. We love him to death. He wears his hat backwards and talks about ‘bustin' slack.' I've never had a coach like that."
"We draw the line if he starts trying to ‘hang' with us on the weekends," Harper added with a laugh. "He's a nice guy. He's something new for me. I like him."
Communication is key, and Ball clearly enjoys his interaction with the players. But the job itself is dead serious. "He knows his stuff extremely well," Harper said. "We watch film every day. He points out the little things, which is really helping us out. We're working a lot more on technique this year, because we're adjusting to his techniques. You always want to be open to something new. Nothing new can ever hurt you. That's my attitude."
Besides installing their new defensive schemes and techniques, the new staff is in the process of identifying which players they'll count on next season. "He's got a lot of competition there, but so far Roman is doing really well," Ball concluded. "There are some great guys that are pushing him. Carlos Andrews is doing a great job and Chris James. We've got some good safeties and corners, so spring is going well.
"We've just got to keep getting better. We can't just come out here and go through the motions. We've got to keep getting better every single day. If we do that, we'll be good."