Based on raw speed, why doesn’t Georgia’s Mecole Hardman get ball more?

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There are few defensive backs in the country who can match Mecole Hardman's speed step for step, as Alabama found out on this 80-yard touchdown catch in the National Championship Game in January.

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Mecole Hardman is one of the fastest players in the SEC. He’s a proven receiver (80-yard TD against Alabama). Have we forgotten what those little swing passes to Percy Harvin at Florida did to us?

Now for my question to you all: Why doesn’t Jim Chaney use Hardman more in the offense?

 Curtis Veal

Appreciate your short, to-the-point question, Curtis. One of the great things about Georgia’s offense at this particular point in history is there are a lot of individuals who deserve to get the ball more. Last season I heard it a lot about running back Sony Michel. Late in the year, we’d hear it about third-string back D’Andre Swift. Occasionally, you’d hear it about Javon Wims or even Elijah Holyfield. Oddly, we didn’t hear it about Terry Godwin, even though he had one of the best ratings per target of any wide receiver in the country (146.8), per Pro Football Focus. We seem to always hear it about the Bulldogs’ tight ends, in particular. Ask Kirby Smart about that one.

Therein lies the biggest challenge for offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. He had a lot of weapons from which to choose last season, and he will this season, too. But you won’t hear him or co-offensive coordinator James Coley complaining. It’s the type of problem every play caller hopes to have.

That said, simply not having enough footballs to go around was one of the primary reasons you didn’t see Hardman get the ball more last season. That and, of course, offensive philosophy. At the end of the day, it’s always easier to hand the ball to somebody in the backfield if you can be productive doing it, and Georgia was. And, actually, Hardman got the ball 8 times that way, rushing for 61 yards on counters and sweeps. Catching passes the traditional way, Hardman hauled in 25 balls for 418 yards and 4 touchdowns — including the 80-yard score to which you refer.

That’s not bad, really. It was third overall on the 2017 team, and not really markedly less than what you’d expect to see from a flanker in a run-first offense. But there are a couple of reasons beyond play-call distribution for the relatively low offensive touches for Hardman. First is simply his experience at the position. As you point out, yes, Hardman is the fastest player on the team and one of the fastest in the SEC (see men’s track participation). But, lest we forget, he was in the first year of his career as a receiver. He started out as a cornerback and played his entire freshman season on defense. Early in the transition he struggled a little with simply catching the ball, as one might expect. He recorded only 9 receptions in Georgia’s first eight games, including three goose eggs.

Toward the end of the season, though, Hardman became a much more reliable target. He caught at least 1 pass in each of the last seven games of the season, including 4 for 67 yards in the SEC Championship Game. None of that includes mention of Hardman’s good work as a kick returner, which added 43 touches to his résumé. Going back to your comparison to Florida’s Percy Harvin, that’s actually similar to Harvin’s output as a freshman. He had 41 catches for 428 yards and 2 touchdowns in his first season with the Gators. To your point, Hardman’s average gain per reception (16.7) was significantly better than Harvin’s (12.6).

A couple more points on that. The Gators were throwing around the ball a good bit more, in general. And Harvin didn’t play the flanker position, per se. Hardman does, and the position has a very specific role in Georgia’s offense. One, it’s a position of deception as much as anything. Much of the time it utilizes motion and counter and fake-counter plays to provide misdirection and keep defensive ends on their toes. And a lot of the big-play effectiveness of the position is based on the element of surprise. The Bulldogs count on opponents forgetting about their flankers or “going to sleep on them” while they provide blocking support and misdirection for running plays. Next thing you know — bam! — the flanker has the ball in the open field and nobody’s going to catch him.

That said, Chaney can do whatever he wants. In 2016, he called flanker Isaiah McKenzie’s number a lot. McKenzie led the team with 44 catches for 633 yards and 7 touchdowns. He also had 19 touches as a ball carrier and 25 as a returner. So giving the ball to Hardman a lot is an option (see what I did there!).

I would think Hardman getting more touches this season is a pretty good bet. That said, Georgia continues to have a lot of viable threats in its offense. Swift needs to get the ball, Riley Ridley is back in good form and Godwin is an experienced senior. And we haven’t even mentioned the additions, such as No. 1-ranked freshman running back Zamir White or a certain quarterback who might like to hang on to the ball every now and then. Have you heard of Justin Fields?

Meanwhile, the joke going around Georgia’s camp is that Chaney — who has moved to coaching tight ends — will favor his new position group with his play calls.

Choices, choices, choices, right? But Hardman has proved he’s a good one.

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