ATHENS – Kirby Smart gave a wry grin this spring when he was asked, for about the 1,287th time, the position status of his dynamic but displaced star, Mecole Hardman.
“This Mecole fascination,” Smart said, then politely proceeded to answer such questions as he has most of the time: By not assigning Hardman a definite position.
It has indeed been a fascination:
Oh, here’s another one.
Ah yes, and here’s another one.
Those are all from this year. Actually, since just March. (Here’s one from February.) Hey you know what, just feel free to search through our handy-dandy box above for some from last year, when Hardman, a five-star recruit, did not see significant action, and people kept wondering why.
That probably won’t be a problem this year.
Georgia badly needs playmaking ability at receiver – and that’s been well-documented too – and there’s every sign that Hardman will be in the mix there. The Bulldogs also need a new kickoff returner, and Hardman is the main candidate there. And what about cornerback?
Very quietly, Hardman’s position was changed to “WR” on Georgia’s official online roster. So … yeah.
So it appears Hardman will be a member of the offense. But how big of a member? And how – because this is the word we’re using in this series – important will he be?
The requisite reminder about this list: It is not a ranking of Georgia’s best players, per se. It’s an evaluation of which players are most vital to the team’s success in 2017, based on their talent, the importance of their position, the depth at their position, and the team’s overall strengths and weaknesses.
No. 12 was the presumed new starting center, Lamont Gaillard.
Now for No. 11 …
11. MECOLE HARDMAN
Receiver (probably)-cornerback (apparently not)-kick returner (definitely)
WHY HE’S VITAL: The Bulldogs were stagnant overall on offense last year, and that was with Isaiah McKenzie. Now that the Human Joystick is a with the Denver Broncos … now what? Enter Hardman, who apparently leaves a defense he didn’t seriously threaten to play on last year, due to the transition to playing a new position. Not that receiver is automatic either for Hardman, who mostly played quarterback in high school. But there is a bigger void at receiver than cornerback, and he looked good catching passes in the spring. Hardman isn’t the only option; Georgia has a deeper group this year, and could use guys like Sony Michel, Brian Herrien, Isaac Nauta and Terry Godwin extensively in the slot. The wide receivers should be bolstered by J.J. Holloman, and more experienced Javon Wims and Riley Ridley. That said, there’s a reason Hardman had five stars by his name coming out of high school. If he can emerge as a real threat in Georgia’s passing game – and even a weapon out of the backfield – then it can mitigate the loss of McKenzie, let other new pieces in the offensive plan slide into place, and take pressure off the established pieces (Michel, Nick Chubb, Jacob Eason). Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt for Hardman to break a few long kickoff returns.
FACTOID: When Hardman played offense in the U.S. Army All-America game his senior year of high school, he racked up 102 kickoff return yards, 36 receiving yards (on three catches) and rushed one time for five yards. Afterwards, a Scout.com analyst referred to him as that all-star games “most electrifying prospect.”
BEST CASE: OK, let’s not set the expectations too high for Hardman. He’s still learning the position, so equaling McKenzie’s stats (64 total touches for 767 yards and nine touchdown)
is setting the bar too high. But if Hardman can be a consistent threat on offense – let’s say 50 touches for around 500 yards – that would still be really good, and be a big help. And if he can surpass Reggie Davis’ kickoff return average last year (21.1 yards, a long of 46) that would be big too.
WORST CASE: Hardman struggles to pick up the offense, is just another guy in a sea of bodies at receiver, gets moved back to defense for a spell, and his sophomore season also becomes a lost season.
FINAL WORD: Maybe Hardman should have been on offense from the start, but last year is over and that can’t be changed now. It appears he’s finally set on one side of the field, and his development there will be one of the most intriguing aspects of this season.