Micah Harper confirmed via twitter on Thursday that his 2023 football season has effectively ended before it even began due to what appears to be a major injury sustained during practice sessions. Nothing is known currently regarding exactly why Harper won’t be participating this season, although BYU coaches are likely to provide more information following Saturday’s scrimmage.
Replacing Harper won’t be easy.
The 5-foot-10, 192 pound junior was rightfully pegged as a primary playmaker within Jay Hill’s new defensive system, whose versatility allowed for greater creativity and flexibility within the applied scheme. Since his freshman year, Harper has been a player well above the curve with regards to on-the-field production due to a solid mindset coupled with very good athletic ability.
We discussed the options in earnest on Cougar Sports with Ben Criddle on ESPN960.
There are exactly two known players that can effectively replace Harper at the strong safety position currently. While neither player brings the experience and versatility Harper does, both have proven through practice sessions to be assignment sound and relatively game-ready.
Talan Alfrey (6-2, 205 So.): Alfrey is well-assumed to take over Harper’s vacated starting spot in the secondary given his production last season coupled with what he’s shown during practice sessions. The Auburn, Washington product has good speed and overall athleticism, although he perhaps lacks the coverage skills and lateral quickness of Harper.
Ethan Slade (6-0, 190 So.): Due to his superior acumen, Slade is the likely backup currently at both the strong and free safety spots. Whatever the Orem product lacks in overall athleticism is somewhat compensated with his knowledge of the system which is at a premium at the safety position. Slade knows his position well, sure, but perhaps as important understands where to direct others which gives him a current leg-up among the more athletic options behind him on the depth chart currently.
NEXT IN LINE
Crew Wakley (6-o, 203 So.): Wakley has quietly afforded himself more and more quality reps with each practice session. Wakley played quarterback for Jordan High School where he showed no hesitation in taking on physical contact and an aggressive style of play which has afforded him a quicker-than-anticipated conversion to the safety position.
Raider Damuni (6-1, 201 Fr.): Damuni was a big-time recruit for BYU out of Timpview High School and subsequently carries a lot of expectation. His upside is tremendous given his overall athleticism and knack for making the big-time plays he employed throughout his high school career. What is working against Damuni is that he’s probably still too soon removed from his mission service for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, although he’s working hard to overcome that hurdle.
PROBABLY STILL A YEAR AWAY
Chika Ebunoha (6-0, 180 Fr.): Ebonuha is in no doubt the most athletically gifted of all the safety options, but has yet to receive the reps necessary to indicate being game ready at either safety position. Seen as primarily an option at free safety, many have mentioned him as a possibility at strong. But while Ebunoha’s future remains very bright, he’s probably still one year away from realizing his exciting potential.
Preston Rex (6-0, 191 Fr.): Like Damuni, Rex was considered a big-time recruit when he signed with BYU in 2020, although also like Damuni, may be just too soon removed from his own mission service to provide valuable reps this coming season. Rex is currently buried on the depth chart, but could easily rise up through the ranks, if not this season, then in 2024 given his athletic credentials.
MOVE THEM OVER
A lot of talk has surrounded the possibility of moving either Jakob Robinson (5-11, 170 Jr.) or Eddie Heckard (5-10, 190 Sr.) from their assumed starting positions at corner over to safety. There are solid arguments both for and against employing such an option, given both player’s overall abilities and experience playing at both the outside corner and slot corner positions.
THE CASE FOR: As stated, both Heckard and Robinson carry a lot of game experience, and while Robinson has been played primarily at slot corner and even some safety during his BYU career, Heckard has been employed at slot corner for much of the fall practice session. A slot corner in a 4-2-5 alignment could well be defined as a strong safety anyway, making a transition for either player to strong safety in a 4-3 alignment likely not to involve much of a learning curve, if any curve at all.
With the dependability shown by Kamden Garrett (5-11, 180 Sr.), along with his game experience at Weber State along with the exciting abilities of Mory Bamba (6-3, 180 Jr.), coaches can perhaps afford to move one of them over to safety. Then there’s JUCO transfer Jayden Dunlap (6-0, 173 Jr.), who has begun to emerge during practice sessions and may rise to become a solid option on the 2-deep roster, if not a starting option. And finally there’s Caleb Christensen (5-10, 187 Jr.), who has shown capable in spots throughout his BYU football career.
THE CASE AGAINST: Hill’s system calls for a lot more man-coverage than previous defensive systems at BYU, making the move of any capable cornerback to safety perhaps not prudent. Furthermore, while both Dunlap and Bamba have shown promise, neither player has game experience at the FBS level, while Christensen isn’t an obvious solution in starting at either outside corner position.
Also, making the move may prove completely unnecessary, given how Hill has used both Robinson and Heckard within his 4-2-5 alignment. As stated, there’s not a pronounced difference with how slot corners and strong safeties are employed, and both Heckard and Robinson are fully adept in manning both the inside and outside corner positions.
The real question is how to best employ BYU’s top 11 defensive players, and whether doing as much will involve more 4-2-5 or 4-3 alignments, which makes the emergence of linebacker Isaiah Glasker (6-5, 220 Fr.) pivotal. It’s easily assumed that both Robinson and Heckard will be part of any assumed top-11 defensive personnel, which may make the real position battle being between Alfrey, Garrett and Glasker. If Glasker is the best option, then perhaps more 4-3 will be employed, but if it’s either Alfrey or Garrett, then look for more 4-2-5 alignments.
Regardless, BYU’s defense has decent and even good options, which hasn’t always been the case within BYU defensive back units in the wake of quality players like Micah Harper going down due to injury.