Athleticism, instinctiveness help Dallas Harper make impact for Gateway defense

·5 min read

Sep. 18—Gateway needed a play early in the fourth quarter at North Hills on Sept. 9.

The Gators trailed 17-10 and the Indians had the ball hoping to close out an upset victory.

That's when Dallas Harper stepped up.

North Hills had a fourth and 3 from near midfield, and it tried to get the first down through the air. But the 6-foot-2 senior safety undercut the route of an Indians receiver, picked off the pass, and raced 54 yards to the end zone.

"I had a feeling they would pass the ball, and that's why I was so ready," Harper said. "We were really prepared."

The play tied the game at 17, and Gateway then secured the 20-17 win with a field goal from Cole Plaskon in the final minutes of regulation.

"Without his athleticism and instinctiveness, he doesn't make that play," Gateway coach Don Holl said.

"You have to have both, and we're glad he plays with both."

Harper has developed a reputation for making big plays the past couple of years for Gateway, which was 3-0 and No. 1 in the Trib HSSN WPIAL Class 5A rankings heading into its Big East opener Friday at rival Franklin Regional.

"We started off really slow against North Hills, but I feel it shouldn't have been that close of a game," Harper said.

"But we started to pick it up, and everybody did their jobs. It was a nice team win."

After Franklin Regional, Gateway returns home Friday to take on conference foe Plum led by former Gateway assistant Matt Morgan.

Harper finished the North Hills game with two interceptions, giving him four through three games. He also recorded interceptions against both Mt. Lebanon and Woodland Hills.

Brandon Livsey, Gateway's cornerbacks coach, holds the Gators' single-season record for interceptions with 11 tallied in 2004, and Harper is on pace to challenge that mark.

"We do talk about it sometimes," Harper said.

Livsey said he appreciates what Harper has done as a ball hawk so far this season.

"He's so instinctive, and when the ball is in the air, he knows he has an opportunity to do something special. He hasn't missed," Livsey said.

"It's all about being athletic, trusting what he sees in front of him, and reacting to the ball. It would be great if he can get my record, and he would like to get that, but his focus is on doing what he can to help his team win each week. If, for him, that means intercepting balls and making plays, that is what he wants to do."

Harper got introduced to organized football at age 5 on a flag team in Penn Hills and put on the pads for the first time two years later.

He transferred to Gateway in 10th grade and started to form the foundation for his Gators career.

While always a defensive back, Harper started out as a backup quarterback to starter Carsen Engleka in 2020.

Last year, when Brad Birch came in from Jeannette, Harper knew that to get on the field on offense, a change in position was in order.

"I felt I could play anywhere on the field, so I went out to receiver to see what I could do there," he said.

The change benefited both Harper and Gateway overall. He broke out with 27 catches for 386 yards and five touchdowns as Gateway went 7-4 overall and suffered a heartbreaking 23-20 loss to Penn Hills in the first round of the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs.

Early against North Hills, Harper had a touchdown pass from Birch called back on a holding penalty.

"I was devastated to see that happen," Harper said. "If you watched the game, you could see me drop my head. I really wanted that score. It would've been a good start to the game."

In the opener with Mt. Lebanon, Harper was key for the Gators' efforts in taking down the defending WPIAL and PIAA Class 6A champions.

He caught seven passes for 65 yards and two touchdowns against the Blue Devils in the 21-6 victory.

"Dallas is playing really well for us on both sides of the ball," Holl said.

"We knew that he was going to be able to go at a high level over the summer, and we knew that last year, too. He's an elite athlete, and he's making plays like elite athletes make."

Harper has garnered recognition from several college football programs.

He received his second offer Sept. 12 from Division II West Liberty in West Virginia. He already had a D-II offer from West Virginia's Bluefield State College.

"The recruiting process is really good for me right now," Harper said.

"It is something I always wanted to get the chance to experience. I had always seen others from Gateway and elsewhere get offers, and I wanted to see how it felt for me."

Harper said that in addition to being a difference-maker for the Gators, he enjoys being a mentor for younger brother Dyson, a sophomore wide receiver and defensive back.

"It's great to have a little brother on the team," he said.

"I like to teach him whenever I can and be an example for him with what I do on the field. We learn all the same stuff at the same practices. He's a really good player, and he's getting better all the time."

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at mlove@triblive.com or via Twitter .