PROVO — A year ago this week, BYU defensive back Micah Harper was in the school’s indoor practice facility, wrapping up another spring practice that didn’t seem unlike any of the previous five or six practices the Cougars had logged in preparation for the 2021 season.

Then disaster struck for the rising sophomore from Chandler, Arizona, who had started five games as a freshman in 2020 for a Cougars team that had one of the best defenses in the country and rose to No. 11 in The Associated Press Top 25.

“I just felt something pop,” Harper said.

“It was like a one-on-one deal against a receiver. My foot got caught in the (artificial turf), and I went knee-to-knee with the other guy, and it just kinda shot my knee out in the wrong direction, and twisted a little bit.” — BYU defensive back Micah Harper on his season-ending knee injury last spring

He had done the unthinkable, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee during a drill similar to many other drills done that day.

“It was like a one-on-one deal against a receiver,” he said. “My foot got caught in the (artificial turf), and I went knee-to-knee with the other guy, and it just kinda shot my knee out in the wrong direction, and twisted a little bit.”

Harper, a 5-foot-10, 185-pounder and one of the biggest prizes of BYU’s 2020 recruiting class, had surgery a few days later and then began months and months of rehabilitation with the hope of getting back midway through the 2021 season. That didn’t happen.

“I didn’t get 100% until after the season last fall, but I feel like I could have played toward the end of the season, if the team needed me,” he said. “But at the end of the day we thought it would be best and more of a good business decision to sit out the rest of the season.”

BYU cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford said it was difficult reining in Harper, who wanted to play in the worst way and had spent the remainder of spring and all of summer last year pushing hard to return to action.

“Was he trying to come back sooner than anyone expected? Absolutely,” Gilford said. “But he understood everything happens for a reason. He treated it like a minor setback for a major comeback.”

Gilford said Harper is one of the “toughest players mentally” that he’s worked with in his seven seasons at BYU. He’s seen major knee injuries wipe out careers, but not with this kid.

“You can tell he has a good foundation as far as his mom and dad at home,” Gilford said. “He decided pretty quickly that he had to make the best of it, turn it into a positive. He knew he had to use it as a year to get bigger, strong and faster, and just grow.”

Whether that happens remains to be seen, but so far the reviews are positive as the Cougars enter the fourth week of spring camp. Harper has moved from cornerback to safety, and rather seamlessly so far, in the words of head coach Kalani Sitake.

“He’s such a good, smart athlete that we think he can handle it,” Sitake said before camp started.

Harper said Monday after a practice filled with “situational scrimmages” outside that he has fully recovered and is feeling no ill effects from the surgery performed last March.

“I feel really, really good right now,” he said. “I got my strength back up. Actually, I feel like I am better than ever. I feel stronger than I did before I was injured.”

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Harper said teammates such as now-departed Cougars Jacques Wilson and Chris Jackson and current players such as Kody Epps, Malik Moore and Miles Davis helped him get through it. His father, former Hawaii Warriors defensive back Kenny Harper, made a lot of trips up from Arizona to also provide encouragement and support.

“It was difficult, but I learned the game from a different aspect, just sitting back, watching, with no stress,” Micah Harper said. “I just learned to enjoy the game, learn from it, learn from the team, and grow as an individual. I think I will look back at it one day and see it as a blessing in disguise.”

Sure, there were some low moments, Harper acknowledged, but nothing that made him think about giving up the game.

“There was never a doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t be back. I love football. This is what I love. I am going to keep playing until I can’t play any more. Sitting on the sideline and not being able to play with my fellow Cougars was tough. But I think it is all a part of God’s plan.” — Micah Harper

“There was never a doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t be back,” he said. “I love football. This is what I love. I am going to keep playing until I can’t play any more. Sitting on the sideline and not being able to play with my fellow Cougars was tough. But I think it is all a part of God’s plan.”

As a freshman, Harper broke into the starting lineup Sept. 26, 2020, at home against Troy, and immediately recorded seven tackles and a pass breakup. He finished the season appearing in 11 of 12 games and made 25 tackles while emerging as a shutdown corner when BYU’s Zach Wilson-led offense garnered most of the attention.

Gilford said he thought Harper could play in the NFL one day when he started recruiting him in 2019, and nothing has happened to change his mind.

“Absolutely, oh yeah, yeah,” Gilford said. “He has the size, the speed, the IQ, the work ethic. So, everything you are looking for, he’s got. He’s a physical kid, not afraid to mix it up, but he can also cover. He understands the game as far as route concepts, coverages and everything like that. So the sky is the limit for him.”

BYU defensive back Micah Harper flips North Alabama running back Tyler Price into the air during a game in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Making the move to safety

Harper said the move to safety — which was apparent the first day of spring practices when he was lined up at the position during the media-viewing portion of practice — was natural for him and one that was talked about when BYU recruited him a couple years ago.

“It is a situation where I can better the team,” he said. “Our corners are really solid right now. Our safeties (aren’t). We lost some safeties, and I think it was a better fit for me in the sense of how I play. 

“I am quick enough to guard the slot. I am physical enough to guard the tight end,” he continued. “And I like to tackle. So I think it is the perfect position for me.”

Gilford said he is as selfish as any other coach and likes to keep “all my guys in my room,” but in the end “we gotta do whatever is best for the team, and whatever leads to more wins.”

Senior safety Malik Moore said Harper is a fast learner and has already learned a lot about the position. He welcomes the help at a position that was thin last year.

“Micah is my guy,” Moore said. “I am out there teaching him all I can. When we are both off the field, we talk and we teach other, coach each other up, so when we are on the field together we are on the same page.”

Harper said he’s put on a little bit of weight, good weight, while keeping his speed intact. Gilford said he could be the playmaker the defense is looking for.

“He’s got what you look for in a safety: size, speed, heart, football IQ, ability to tackle and ability to understand concepts and ability to make plays,” Gilford said “That’s what he does. It is good to have guys who can make plays and guys who understand the scheme and stuff like that.”

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As far as the cornerbacks room is concerned, Gilford said former Orem High star and Utah State transfer Jakob Robinson is back at corner — having been needed to play safety last year — and Oregon State transfer Kaleb Hayes is also having a good spring. D’Angelo Mandell, Isaiah Herron and Jacob Boren are also candidates for starting spots at the corners.

“The good thing is I have a group of guys who all played last year. They are all vets who know what they are doing,” Gilford said. “We got guys who want to compete.”

Safeties coach Ed Lamb said the addition of Harper makes the safeties group deeper and more talented.

“We run different personnel combinations and I think we will see different starting and depth combinations in each package,” Lamb said. “We have a lot of guys that have proven they can play parts of the game really well. We are just looking for who is the most well-rounded guy out there. … We want to take the guys who are more physical and build a safety group.”

Getting to BYU

Harper said he was vaguely familiar with BYU in high school because there were a lot of BYU fans at Basha High in the Phoenix area and because his father once terrorized then-BYU quarterback Ty Detmer when he played for Hawaii.

In a 59-28 win over the Cougars hours after Detmer won the Heisman Trophy in 1990, Kenny Harper intercepted Detmer three times.

Micah Harper grew up in Oahu, then his family moved to Arizona before his freshman season. He had early offers from Syracuse, San Diego State, Army and Air Force before BYU got on his radar.

“BYU was actually one of my last offers, but I made the trip and I really loved it here,” he said. “It checked all the boxes for me.”

Gilford said recruiting the three-star prospect to BYU “was a collective thing” among the coaches after Gilford made the first contact.

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“Coach (Preston) Hadley has Arizona as his (recruiting) area and he went down there and checked him out and was like, ‘Man, this kid would be a great fit at BYU,’” Gilford said. “From that point on, we were on him, and we pulled the trigger (offered him) and the rest is history.”

Because he’s not a member of the faith that sponsors BYU, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Harper says his decision to sign with BYU in December 2019 was met with some questioning from his friends and other coaches.

“But then as I came here, and they grew closer to the school, as I did, they knew that this was the best decision for me, and they came around,” he said. “It was different — a nonmember coming to a school like this. But they knew that I was in safe hands and I was making the best decision for myself.”

He said BYU’s honor code and unique culture was never an issue because of the way he was raised in a religious family.

“I really just came here for all the right reasons. We have big-time football. The faith-based aspect of the school was appealing to me, still is. Keeping God first in everything that you do is important to me,” he said. 

“I love the academics as well. You have got the Ivy League-caliber of academics over here, and the connections as well. There are a lot of great people at this school. They really treat you like a family here and I feel like this is home.”

Harper said he has one more class to take, and then he will apply to the business school this summer, hoping to get into the business marketing track. As far as the NFL is concerned — his dad got a few tryouts, but ended up fashioning a career in the Arena Football League with the Detroit Drive — Harper sees himself playing at BYU for two more seasons before making the jump.

“Things don’t go your way all the time, so you have to keep your options open,” he said.

A devastating knee injury taught him that.