WATCH: Wide receiver steal in 2019 NFL Draft might also be Georgia’s biggest loss

Georgia football-Mecole Hardman-UGA
Georgia receiver and return specialist Mecole Hardman is just starting to realize his potential as a receiver, and an NFL team looks to benefit.

ATHENS — Georgia football coach Kirby Smart is hoping for a big NFL draft for his Bulldogs, the better for future recruiting.

WATCH: Kirby Smart shares thoughts on UGA Pro Day

But it was clear as Smart spoke on Wednesday’s pro day in the so-called “House of Payne” indoor facility he regretted the one recruit that got away after the bowl game.

Mecole Hardman.

Perhaps no UGA player would have benefitted more from returning for a senior season than Hardman. It’s fair to say the speedy Hardman  would have challenged tailback D’Andre Swift for total yardage honors in 2019.

Instead, Hardman — who had just 12 catches in his last 8 games in former coordinator Jim Chaney’s offense at Georgia — could be the steal of the draft.

“I still think he has great upside at the wide receiver position, so he’s a guy that’s going to flourish when he gets to that level,” Smart said on Wednesday. “I’m looking forward to seeing him do it, because he’s grown as a player for us, but he hasn’t even reached his full potential.”

Hardman had just 34 catches last season for 532 yards and 7 TDs in 2018. He would have likely doubled those numbers in 2019 with UGA losing WRs Riley Ridley and Terry Godwin.

Hardman said he told Smart after the Sugar Bowl he was going pro, and that’s when “it hit the fan.”

There’s a strong chance Smart felt it would have been in Hardman’s best interests — ultimately — to return for another season.

But where the team was concerned, it was the late decision that hurt Georgia in addition to losing such a great talent.

Smart explained in an SEC Network interview that the Jan. 14 NFL declaration date puts college teams in a bind relative to the early December signing date.

RELATED: Kirby Smart shares fascinating look into future

“I’m finding out January 14 who’s leaving, but yet I’m signing kids in December who are coming in (January),” Smart said in February.

“I think more and more teams, especially upper echelon programs, will have rosters full of freshman or sophomores and a few juniors, because your (would-be) seniors are coming out early, or they’re transferring, they’re going in the (transfer) portal if they’re not playing,” he said.

“So your teams will always be loaded with youth, and probably whoever manages that best, is who’s going to remain at the top of college football.”

That’s certainly true for Georgia at receiver.  Smart lamented not having an early enrollee at the position at the opening spring press conference.

UGA has added signees Dominick Blaylock and George Pickens, but neither is on campus for spring drills.

RELATED: Georgia 2019 football signing class list

Hardman, meanwhile, appears to be the fastest-rising Georgia player in NFL draft rankings after running a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at the combine.

WATCH: Mecole Hardman flashes SEC speed at NFL combine

“I think a lot of people saw that speed, they expected me to run fast, they see that on film,” Hardman said. “They see the potential.”

Smart helps NFL teams recognize just how much potential Hardman has by making it a point to mention that he’s only played the receiver position for two seasons.

“I usually bring it up pretty quick, to me it’s an important thing to understand that here’s a guy that only caught snaps in high school (as a QB), then only caught interceptions as a freshman (as a DB) and then he spends two years catching the ball and he’s done a really good job doing that,” Smart said.

“Especially in his pro days and his workouts,” Smart said. “That’s kinda the only thing that people could try to knock Mecole on (previously).

“He’s fast, he’s elusive, he’s a great returner, well what about his hands? Well all he’s done is catch every ball thrown to him for the last two months, and I’m excited to see what he does.”

Smart and Georgia fans just wish they could have seen Hardman do more to achieve his potential in Athens before departing for the NFL.

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