ATHENS – The lines are just a rough guideline, at least to those who have earned the right. The Georgia football playbook shows those lines for receivers to run, but the receivers who are experienced enough, and knowledgable enough, can deviate from the script.
Mecole Hardman now puts himself in that category, only a year after beginning to learn the position.
“Now you can start putting a little flavor to it of your own,” Hardman said. “And kind of playing to yourself, how you’re supposed to play.”
Hardman possesses much athleticism, plenty of speed and seemingly endless spirit. He just lacked a pure position until last spring after spending a fruitless freshman season trying cornerback.
That’s long forgotten now. The lingering image of Hardman from last season is a spectacular one: Hauling in a deep pass from Jake Fromm, straddling the sideline and running into the end zone for an 80-yard touchdown, giving Georgia a 20-7 lead over Alabama in the National Championship Game. That this was the final touchdown of Georgia’s season is of much pain to Hardman and his teammates.
In fact, Hardman scored both of Georgia’s touchdowns in the title game, the first coming on a 1-yard keeper out of the wildcat formation. He finished the season established as one of Georgia’s top 3 receivers and enters this season as a presumed starter.
“You look at last spring and then to this spring and then include the season, Mecole’s gotten a whole lot better,” said tight end Charlie Woerner, a fellow junior. “He keeps on working at it. I think he’s going to be one of the stars of the future. He already is.”
Already forgotten, it seems, are two things:
Hardman never really played receiver before last spring, when coaches began trying him on offense. He wasn’t even officially listed as a receiver until last summer. By the end of the season, when Hardman was adeptly finishing that 80-yard play against Alabama, he looked like a natural.
But in the first half of the season he had his struggles, dropping a number of passes. It wasn’t until the fourth game of the season, against Missouri, when it clicked for Hardman, he said. He began that game by scoring on a 35-yard run, and finished it with a 59-yard touchdown pass from Fromm.
“Before that I didn’t know what was going on. I was dropping passes, I couldn’t get open. I’m like, dang,” he said. “But after that Missouri game I guess it just clicked. After that I think I had a good thing going for myself.”
Now he feels ready to, as he put it, add his own “flavor” to the position. Hardman said he had a “pretty good grasp” of the playbook last year, but this year he can expand on it. He explained:
“In the playbook you’ve got lines, and they tell you a route. But on the field coming out first you try to run it like that but now that you know [the playbook] you can do different releases, stems and not necessarily how it’s drawn up. When you’re comfortable doing that, coaches will give you more free will to do a lot more things.”
No coaches were immediately available to confirm that aspect of the playbook. But as Mike Tyson once said: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” It would stand to reason that a receiver would have the freedom to get open any way he can as a play develops, within reason of course.
Kirby Smart, asked about the receivers last week, listed Hardman, Terry Godwin and Riley Ridley as having “a presence about them, a confidence about them.” This time last year Hardman wasn’t in that top group of receivers. He was even really in the group.
“Going through a whole season at a spot you’re not comfortable at, that you’re getting comfortable with,” Hardman said, “Just doing that, and now with the spring …”
He laughed as he made eye contact with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, walking behind the media horde and smiling at the receiver.
“I feel in place. I feel where I’m supposed to be at,” Hardman said. “Being at a set position you can put your mind on where you’re supposed to be and doing what you’re supposed to do.”