ATHENS – Mecole Hardman began lobbying to play receiver at Georgia before he arrived on campus. It came in the form of a tweet to Kirby Smart in May of 2016:
“I heard you might need some fire power at WR?” Hardman wrote. “Just call my name and I’ll give you more than you need.”
It was mostly meant to be light-hearted, and Smart didn’t take him up on the offer right away. But as the chances grow that Hardman will see at least some action on offense this year, it’s worth remembering that the signs were always there.
Hardman’s future could still be at cornerback, and he was still wearing a defensive jersey at Tuesday’s practice. But this is a player who hardly played defense in high school – but also hardly played receiver. That’s why finding a place for his talents is so tricky.
“We’re experimenting with Mecole,” Smart said after Tuesday’s practice, when Hardman was seen working with the wide receivers and pulling in passes from Jacob Eason and Jake Fromm. “He’s a bright kid. You don’t want to do this with a kid who struggles to learn. Mecole doesn’t struggle to learn. He’s football-savvy. He’s got football instincts, intelligence. So he picks up on things well. He enjoys it.”
Hardman wears No. 4, the same jersey number as Champ Bailey, who as Smart’s teammate in the 1990s carved out a two-way player role. In recent years, Georgia has also tried the same with Malcolm Mitchell (only briefly), Brandon Boykin and Branden Smith.
Then-Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said several times he thought Mitchell was a “first-round corner,” as in NFL draft choice. Well, Mitchell ended up a receiver, a third-round pick, and catching passes in the Super Bowl.
At some point, players are too good not to get the ball. And Georgia has apparently reached that point with Hardman. It’s just a matter of whether he’ll play cameo roles on offense or switch over there full-time. Yes, Georgia still prefers bigger receivers, and Hardman is only 5-foot-11 and 183 pounds. But athleticism can make up for that.
“He has an elusiveness that gives us something maybe we don’t have offensively right now,” Smart said, before adding: “He’s got to become a more natural receiver. People think in high school that’s what he played. He didn’t play that.”
That’s true: At Elbert County High School, Hardman was a quarterback, and a very good one in a zone-read offense. He rushed for 2,103 yards and scored 28 touchdowns as a senior. He also played a little bit of safety.
Then came the U.S. Army All-American game, when Hardman was supposed to showcase himself on defense, but the week of the game the coaches put him at wide receiver. The end result: Hardman hauled in three catches for 36 yards, rushed once for five yards, and also rolled up 201 yards on kickoff returns, leading a Scout.com analyst to call Hardman “the most electrifying prospect” in that game.”
But when Hardman arrived at Georgia, the determination was made to use him at cornerback. It appeared to be a consensus feeling among the player himself and the coaching staff, as well as the former one. (Jeremy Pruitt was recruiting Hardman when he found out Mark Richt had been fired.)
Hardman didn’t see the field much last year, as he learned and developed at cornerback. The only time he touched the ball was against Louisiana-Lafayette, when he returned a kickoff 17 yards.
Smart was asked this week if he regretted not playing Hardman on offense last year.
“Absolutely not,” Smart said. “Because every single touch he would’ve had Isaiah (McKenzie) would’ve had. And I feel like that Isaiah was a better fit. And Mecole at times was our second corner last year, he was running at the twos, developing. So no, I don’t have any regrets.”
But now McKenzie is gone, and with continued questions at receiver, Georgia is examining its options.
“He definitely has the skill set to advance his career on (defense),” Elbert County coach Sid Fritts told DawgNation’s Chip Towers last year. But then Fritts went on: “For me, it’d be hard for me to take the ball away from him, because he’s special with that football in his hands.”
In that same story from last year – when Hardman talked about learning cornerback – something that Hardman said seems appropriate to remember now:
“I always seem to end up back on offense,” he said.