Micah Harper came to BYU to play big-time football and he will get his wish this fall when the Cougars join the Big 12. It’s a dream come true for the sophomore safety from Chandler, Arizona, but it comes with a challenge to play bigger than he is.

“I’m trying to understand the game from a different aspect. You have a new defense. You have different fits now, different responsibilities. I’m trying to learn everybody’s position on the defense.” — BYU safety Micah Harper

Harper is 5-foot-10 and 192 pounds.

Says Harper, “192 is a good weight. It’s the most I’ve weighed in my life. I’m a little bigger, but I’m keeping the speed I’ve always had.”

Last year, as a COVID-19 freshman, Harper finished third on the team with 62 tackles, including 35 solos. He produced career highs of 10 tackles against Utah State and 1 ½ tackles-for-loss against Wyoming. But the play he remembers the most was against Notre Dame in Las Vegas.

“It was the second drive of the game on third-and-nine,” he said. “I made that hit on the wideout.”

Harper pummeled Jayden Thomas to break up the pass and force an Irish punt, which led to BYU’s early 6-3 lead.

Getting bigger, stronger and faster is the theme of the offseason for BYU.

“It’s trusting in our strength coaches,” Harper said. “That’s something we are preaching a lot these days — just trust everybody. Trust the new staff, knowing that Kalani (Sitake) is bringing in the right guys to make us better.”

New coaches, new attitude

With four new coaches on the defensive side of the ball, including Jay Hill, who is the defensive coordinator and safeties coach, there is a spirit of newness and a call for personal responsibility to get better and Harper can feel it.

“I’m trying to understand the game from a different aspect,” he said. “You have a new defense. You have different fits now, different responsibilities. I’m trying to learn everybody’s position on the defense.”

A safety in football is the last line of defense between the opponent and the end zone and Harper is determined to be a guy Hill can rely on.

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“Micah is a really good football player,” Hill said. “He is very instinctive and intelligent and always knows where the football is.”

For Harper, and everyone else who is vying for a starting spot this spring, catching and keeping Hill’s attention is a high priority.

“He brings a new intensity,” Harper said of his new defensive boss. “His expectation is nothing but the best for us. Going into the Big 12, that’s what we need. We need a high standard. A high bar.”

Hall vs. Slovis

Harper spent every day in practice last season defending against quarterback Jaren Hall. With Hall now preparing for the NFL draft, he now contends with transfer quarterback Kedon Slovis.

“They are both great throwers, good at reading defenses, throwing it to the open man and giving the ball to the running back if the numbers are in the box,” Harper said. “There are differences between the two. Jaren is more of a runner, a real dual threat. But Kedon has shown that he can run the ball, too.”

Hall threw for 6,174 yards and 52 touchdowns during his three seasons at BYU. Slovis threw for 9,973 yards and 68 touchdowns during stops at USC and Pittsburgh. Harper admits the newcomer is a challenge for the defense.

“Oh yeah, for sure,” he said. “We didn’t bring him in for average or mediocrity.”

Big 12

Joining the Big 12 is a big step for Harper, who has always played bigger than he is. During his senior year at Basha High he threw for 517 yards, rushed for 264 and had 149 receiving yards to go along with 26 tackles.

As the competition increases in the new conference, the fight for playing time in BYU’s secondary will also stiffen. Sitake’s mantra of getting the “best 11 players” on the field should put pressure on Harper and everybody else to earn their time on the turf.

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“We are going really fast and getting a lot of reps,” Harper said of spring practice. “It feels like we are almost in fall camp already.”

It’s good that the Sept. 2 home opener against Sam Houston is still months away. The Cougars need all the time they have available to get bigger, stronger and faster, including adding a few more pieces in the transfer portal in May.

The Big 12 is indeed the Big Time for a program that navigated through a dozen years as an independent — which is what they were when Harper committed to Sitake in 2019. The change is welcomed.

“I’m so excited,” he said. “This is one of the reasons I came to BYU — to play big-time football!”

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.