ATHENS — The way Kirby Smart tells it, after nearly every Georgia football game last season he would open his phone and have a message from Isaiah McKenzie, lamenting what Mecole Hardman had been unable to do.
“Coach, if I’d had that much room I’d have seven touchdowns,’” McKenzie wrote, according to Smart, who added on his own: “So he was calling Mecole out, not me.”
McKenzie left Georgia after the 2016 season with the school’s career record for punt return touchdowns, with five over three seasons. He also had a kickoff return touchdown as a freshman.
Hardman, stepping into McKenzie’s role last season, had zero return touchdowns. But that doesn’t mean he had a bad season: Hardman led the SEC with 11.8 yards per return and always seemed painfully close to breaking one.
But he could never seem to get past that last defender.
“You go back and watch the film, it was like one block away or just one cut away, that type thing,” Hardman said. “But it was very close. First year doing it. Seeing different things out there. This year I should take a couple back — hopefully.”
This assumes Hardman keeps the punt return job, which Smart said is not a safe assumption. Fellow receivers Terry Godwin, Ahkil Crumpton and Kearis Jackson are part of what Smart called an “open competition.”
“You have anointed him as the returner next year. I have not,” Smart told media members. “So that is an earned position. That is not his position yet. We’ll see what happens.”
Hardman would be hard to replace, given how good he looked returning punts last season. Not scoring a touchdown really was his only failing, as he handled the ball well and tended to get a lot of return yardage. Still, when he and his teammates watch film and see him not breaking one, Hardman’s teammates give him a hard time. He said he has a “better plan” for 2018.
That includes how he will celebrate that first return touchdown. But he won’t reveal any details.
“I got something,” Hardman said, smiling.
Actually, that also could happen after an offensive touchdown. Hardman had several of those last season, including the 80-yard touchdown catch in the second half of the National Championship Game.
That was when Hardman planned to break out the special celebration, but he ended up not doing so because he didn’t know if the play would stand.
“I thought it was going to get called back, because I saw the flag. So I didn’t do it then,” Hardman said. “First game, I got something in store for the first touchdown.”
Is it something he can do without getting a flag?
“Yeah, for sure,” he said. “It’s going to be something quick. I’ve seen somebody do it, so I’ve got to do it, too. He’s actually at a higher level. I’m not going to say what sport he plays, but he did it and I like the way he did it.”
So not a football player?
“I don’t know,” said Hardman, whose smile made clear he does know but wasn’t saying. “I’ve got something I want to try. I think it’ll be nice, though.”