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(Hyosub Shin/AJC)
Georgia might not have a more explosive play-maker on the roster than Mecole Hardman, who as a junior is coming into his own as both a receiver and kick returner.

Own the East: Georgia’s Mecole Hardman is simply a big play waiting to happen

Chip Towers

GEORGIA’S OWN #12: WR/KR MECOLE HARDMAN

ATHENS – One of the terrific things about Georgia’s Mecole Hardman is everybody always believes he can do better. That’s quite a testament to Hardman’s potential, considering he already is exceptionally good.

This time last year, we were all wondering whether Hardman could make the transition from defensive back to wide receiver and become a consistent offensive threat. We’re not wondering that anymore.

We were also wondering a year ago whether Hardman had any potential as a kick returner. We’re not wondering about that anymore either.

But the more we see Hardman do, the more it becomes evident that he could do even more. Even Hardman’s admits that.

“I can play better, definitely,” Hardman said this past spring.

Entering his junior year, this former 5-star prospect from Elbert County has a grand total of one start in his career. It’s hard to believe even when you say it out loud, but it’s true.

There are a couple of reasons for that. One, Hardman began his career as a defensive back. Recruited by former Georgia defensive coordinator – and current Tennessee head coach – Jeremy Pruitt, the Bulldogs brought this championship-winning high school quarterback to Athens believing he could he the consummate cover corner.

Maybe he would’ve been, but we’ll never know. After tutoring as a full-time defensive back for the first time his career, Hardman could never crack the Bulldogs’ lineup and actually played sparingly as a backup.

There had always been discussion of Hardman one day playing both ways at Georgia. The No. 4 jersey he wears is an homage to Champ Bailey, the last, great two-way player for the Bulldogs. But Isaiah McKenzie’s early exit to the NFL after his junior season left Georgia with a significant void at the slot position.

Knowing this was coming about, Kirby Smart and the Bulldogs began to give Hardman looks on offense during bowl practices that December. By last spring, Hardman had transitioned into a full-time flanker.

Hardman’s physical gifts were immediately evident. As his inclusion on Georgia’s national championship men’s track team will attest, he is one of if not the fastest player on the Bulldogs’ roster. But early on, Hardman struggled with the idiosyncrasies of the receiver position, not to mention just catching the ball.

Hardman dropped a sure touchdown on a deep ball from Jake Fromm against Notre Dame in the second game of the year. He did catch four other passes in that contest, but that represented more than half of the seven receptions he’d make the first half of the regular season.

To his credit, Hardman improved every week. By the end of the year – and notably in the postseason – Hardman became one of the Bulldogs most lethal offensive threats. He caught a pass in all but one of Georgia’s remaining eight games, including four in the SEC Championship Game and an 80-yard touchdown against Alabama in the College Football Playoff final.

At the end of it all, Hardman finished as the Bulldogs’ third-leading receiver. He had 25 catches for 418 yards – a 16.7 yard average – and scored four touchdowns.

“I feel good, I feel in place,” Hardman told reporters during spring practice. “I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be at. Definitely, being at a set position, you can put your mind on just receiver and do what you’re supposed to do.”

Mecole Hardman nearly broke a couple of returns against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl, including this 21-yard punt return. (Reann Huber/AJC)

 

It was as a returner that Hardman really drew the “oohs and ahs.” Hardman never broke free for a touchdown on a punt or kickoff return, but he came tantalizing close time and again. At least a half-dozen times, Hardman had one man to beat to take it all the way. To his considerable frustration, a shoelace tackle or single unblocked defender spoiled his jaunt.

Nevertheless, Hardman’s production was undeniable. He led the SEC and finished eighth nationally with an 11.8-yard punt return average and second in the league and 21st in FBS on kickoffs.

Ever confident, Hardman believes he not only can approve on the that, but take a couple to the house as well.

“You go back and watch the film, it was like one block away or just one cut away, that type of thing,” Hardman said earlier this year. “But it was very close. First year doing it; seeing different things out there. This year, I should take a couple back — hopefully.”

Hardman’s teammates desperately want to see that happen.

“We’ve got a lot of guys blocking their tail off for this man,” junior safety J.R. Reed told reporters. “He’s just got to put it together. He’s going to get one this year; he might get a couple. I feel it.”

Coach Kirby Smart appreciates all the confidence in Hardman, and Hardman in himself, but he warned that Georgia has other talented returners on the roster. He said Hardman is not guaranteed to get all the work in the return game.

The Bulldogs are also working Terry Godwin, Ahkil Crumpton and Kearis Jackson on punt returns. They added Demetris Robertson to the roster this summer, who returned kicks at Cal. And several incoming freshmen are getting practice reps on kickoff returns.

“That is an earned position,” Smart said. “That is not (Hardman’s) position yet. We’ll see what happens.”

Suffice it to say, if Hardman continues to show the rate of improvement he did in his first year as a receiver and returner, he’ll be yet another reason Georgia could “Own the East.”