Apr. 30—JACKSONVILLE — There came a collective gulp in JSU Stadium on Saturday, based on the announcement of ominous referee jargon: "Personal foul, targeting, No. 1."
Replay review overturned the call and Nicario Harper's ejection, but Jacksonville State's coaches and fans briefly had to ponder going on without their Buchanan Award finalist in an FCS playoff game.
Harper had to ponder the possibility of the latest nope in his struggles to contribute as the impactful defensive standout he's always believed he should be.
"I was nervous," he said. "I knew it was a big game, and I couldn't afford to be out."
The call was reversed.
Harper continued on, and JSU rolled to a 49-14 victory over Davidson in the first round. JSU plays host to Delaware in Sunday's quarterfinal game.
No setback for a guy who transferred from Southern Mississippi, hoping to find a team that sees him like he sees him.
Harper found it at JSU, where he's up for the award given to FCS's top defender. The award carries resonance, and Darius Jackson made it resonate more at JSU in 2017, when he was the first Gamecock to win it since its 1995 inception.
Buchanan Award or no, Harper gives JSU a guy wearing former All-American Marlon Bridges' number and matching Bridges' All-America presence.
"Marlon had a really great career here, and we needed somebody like that," JSU coach John Grass said. "Nicario comes in, and he's an all-business guy who's very physical and saves you a lot of explosive plays because he gets the ball down on the ground."
Forgive Harper's all-business approach. He found out how all-business the business of college football can be at his previous stop.
The former Carver-Atlanta stayed committed to Appalachian State until signing day, when he flipped to Southern Mississippi.
"They told me I was the only safety coming there," Harper said. "When I got there, they had two junior-college safeties come in. I was the youngest safety on the board."
He played in nine games in 2018, but on special teams. He said coaches kept promising him a chance to play safety, but it never came.
He hoped to break through on defense as a sophomore.
"Spring ball, I led in interceptions. I led in tackles," he said. "I dominated every day. I did everything I could to get on the field, and I thought I was going to be a starter.
"At the end of fall camp, they said they were going to redshirt me my sophomore year."
Come the fourth game, at Alabama, coaches informed Harper they needed him to play ... on special teams. Essentially, he could play special teams or go home.
He agreed to play, but his parents weren't having it. At their urging, he entered the transfer portal.
Three weeks in, he heard from JSU's D.J. Coleman, a player Harper knew from an Atlanta-area all-star game. Harper had never heard about Jacksonville State.
"I was just humbled, so I was going to talk to everybody," he said. "I talked to them and researched the school."
JSU defensive coordinator Kevin Sigler visited Harper, heard his story and laid out his opportunities at JSU. Harper came "hungry."
"I didn't come here to make friends, at first," he said. "I worked harder than I've ever worked. I had something to prove.
"For three or four or five months, it was all work and no fun. I didn't want that. I just wanted to work."
Harper leads JSU with 83 tackles and three interceptions. Reminiscent of his ball-hawking predecessor at JSU, he returned a fumble 64 yards for a crucial touchdown in JSU's 34-28 victory over Mercer in the fall.
"Everything has worked out as well as it could go," Harper said. "Everything has went as planned. All of my goals are starting to get accomplished now.
"I've got a family here. I love my coaches and my teammates, too and ... we're in the playoffs, competing for a national championship."
Sports Writer Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter: @jmedley_star.