Willie Harper was one of several great defensive players on Bob Devaney’s national championship teams. He was also versatile enough to switch positions in the NFL and help the San Francisco 49ers win their first Super Bowl.
On Nebraska defenses that featured, at various times, Rich Glover, Larry Jacobson and John Dutton, among others, Harper haunted opponents from his end position. He had 182 total tackles — 41 for losses of 268 yards — in three varsity seasons. He made numerous All-America teams as a junior and senior.
Undersized at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, the Toledo, Ohio, product was sensational as a sophomore. He had 56 total tackles, including 12 for 110 yards in losses. He was named the outstanding lineman in the Orange Bowl victory over LSU that brought the Huskers their first national championship.
Harper followed with his best statistical season in 1971, when the Huskers earned a repeat national title. He had 72 total tackles, including 20 for 100 yards in losses. He had six unassisted tackles in the Orange Bowl romp over Alabama.
Harper added 54 total tackles as a senior. The defense had four straight shutouts in one stretch and closed the Devaney era with a 40-6 win over Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl.
A second-round NFL draft choice by San Francisco, Harper spent 11 years with the 49ers — in the lean times and when the franchise turned things around in the 1981 Super Bowl championship season. Switched to linebacker, he was a valuable member of the defense — as much for his role in containment as statistics.
He told the 49ers’ web site: "I always wondered, ‘What can I do to best help my team win?’ I really felt like when I did what I did, I was one of the best in the league. And that was to hold that corner, hold that edge."
These are the players who built Nebraska football.
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