Mecole Hardman, Jr. attained five-star status, garnered every offer he could fathom, visited his dream school (Miami) and was even named the nation’s top athlete for 2016.
The 5-foot-10 senior made another all-state team, was named to the U.S. Army All-American team and represented his country in the International Bowl. Hardman even put his No. 21 jersey in a good position to be retired at Elbert County High School one day.
He got his. That’s what made what Hardman did at the MVP camp this month all the more remarkable. Hardman not only served as a counselor but stayed after with several young players.
The nation’s No. 1 athlete wanted to see them get theirs.
This was no courtesy with a few “work hard” bits and a “selfie” or three. Hardman talked motivation, psychology and the finer technical aspects of cornerback and receiver. He even ran a few routes.
It stretched across hours. Hardman shared the same way others had for him. If people knew he made a deal with the man upstairs that for every minute he spent with them, he’d make a big play at UGA it would’ve made sense.
But there was no such thing. That makes perfect sense if you know the person Hardman has been over the last two years on the recruiting trail. He’ll report to UGA this summer and work his way into the cornerback depth chart. Look for him to challenge to return kicks and snatch a few snaps every game at receiver. He’ll be staying long hours after practices to perfect his craft, too.
What was big in his eventual decision to play for Kirby Smart? Well, he did say he was tired of seeing everybody else win, but there’s also tremendous depth to his decision. DawgNation sat down with Hardman to find out what really went down in his recruiting story.
If you think you know, well … just read on. Then you’ll really know.
DN: You didn’t take all your officials. Was that a regret?
MH: I wish I could have done that. I took too long for all of that.
DN: Weather canceled your official visit to Alabama. That’s when former UGA coordinator Jeremy Pruitt was so huge in your recruiting. You might have already been a silent commitment to UGA when you said Alabama was your leader publicly. If that weather would not have popped up, do you make that trip to Tuscaloosa?
MH: I definitely would have taken that official visit to Alabama.
DN: Could it have swayed you?
MH: Maybe. I think I had already silently committed. I kind of knew I was already going to Georgia. Well, no I take that back. I don’t know if that weather was a sign for me not to go to Alabama and to go to Georgia. Maybe that weather put that final nail in it for me to stay with Georgia. I look at that weather as a sign. I was supposed to go to Georgia and not keep thinking about the possibility of playing at Alabama. People said when that snow happened I just didn’t want to go to Alabama in the first place, but I really think if that snow would have never messed up my official that would’ve been something with Coach Pruitt there. Nine times out of 10, I probably would have committed. Coach Pruitt and I were so close I feel maybe I would’ve then been stuck on Alabama with that treatment they give you. I probably would’ve felt even more at home there. But at the end, I felt that snow was a sign from God that led me to go to Georgia.
DN: Would that visit have opened your recruitment back up?
MH: I think I would’ve gone to Alabama.
DN: What do you know now that you wished you knew in March of 2015?
MH: Take your time and take all your visits. I wish I could’ve taken my time more with my recruiting process and actually give everybody a chance. My recruitment blew up my senior year. This time last year I was stuck on Tennessee. I was going there. I just feel like if I was more open to everybody else and different schools and not set on one school I would’ve gone somewhere else and not been stuck on one school. I would have had more time in my process. You only get to do this once. I enjoyed things more once I learned that. I would tell any high school junior now to not name any leaders with your schools. Just say you are looking at everybody equally and have fun with it. Then make your decision according to your terms and not on anyone else’s schedule.
DN: You popularized the thought of being a silent commitment. When you first started talking about that did you feel you were going to Tennessee?
MH: When I first said that, I was stuck on Tennessee. Like I tell everybody when my recruiting first started taking off Tennessee was the only school which was recruiting me hard. Nobody was coming after me as hard. I did feel for a long while I was going to Tennessee, but there’s one thing I have to say here. No disrespect to Tennessee here, but when I watched games I never could see myself out there. I could never picture myself out there at Tennessee. The atmosphere is great. It is one of the best in college football I have been in, but just looking down on that field I could never see myself playing there. I always tried to visualize myself there, but I never could. … I don’t know what it was. Like when I went on the field when I visited Alabama or Georgia or Ohio State, I could see myself playing out there. I didn’t go to Ohio State for a game, but when I went down to the field I could see myself out there. I never got that feeling with Tennessee, but I feel if I ever did I would’ve gone to Tennessee.
DN: I felt your recruitment had three phases. The first was early love for Tennessee and then Pruitt wakes you up to Georgia. Then he leaves for Alabama and other coaches (the new Kirby Smart staff) reaps the rewards of the work Pruitt did to turn your eyes to Georgia. Then Pruitt comes along and tries to recruit against those guys to turn your eyes to Alabama. Is that your story?
MH: That’s just about it. Georgia never looked at me when Todd Grantham was the defensive coordinator. I felt like I hated Georgia then because they never recruited me. I was like ‘why am I up here in your state doing big things and you are never recruiting me early on?’ That’s why I feel like prospects like DeShaun Watson and (Robert) Nkemdiche went out-of-state. There were so many other schools that are on you hard recruiting you and Georgia wasn’t really interested yet and they were your home state school. Your home state school should be first. That’s how I felt and a lot of other prospects feel. Especially the ones that did not go to Georgia. Georgia never really put the full-court press on the state’s best prospects early until Coach Pruitt got there. He put a stamp on Georgia getting in on all those in-state kids early. When he came and put me on Georgia, then I really started liking Georgia. Then when he left I wanted to go where he went.
DN: Yeah, but that gets complicated. Alabama wasn’t really recruiting you hard until Pruitt got there. So you had to think those same things about Alabama as you did with Georgia when they really weren’t recruiting you the way other schools did. They were late, too.
MH: Yeah, Bama didn’t start recruiting me until Pruitt got there. When he got to Bama, then they started recruiting me the way Georgia was recruiting me. But then I thought Alabama didn’t really want me before Pruitt got there. I didn’t talk to Alabama like that before. Coach (Nick) Saban never talked to me like that. He never came and visited me. The only time he came and visited me was when Coach Pruitt was there. Coach Pruitt told him he needed to visit me. That made me feel like I wasn’t really wanted. I guess I felt like just another top guy they were going after.
DN: When you named Alabama as your leader the week of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in January, was that a show of respect for Pruitt?
MH: Kind of. Yeah, it was. Because I was set on going and playing for him. Then he moved to Alabama and I was set on going to Alabama. I am not going to lie. I even told my parents I was planning on going to Alabama. Especially after that LSU visit I had during the season. I had the best time. But then I really started sitting down and thinking about Georgia and playing for my home state and trying to win a championship in my home state close to my family and my decision went back to Georgia.
DN: Did the relationships you had with Ben Cleveland, Jacob Eason and Isaac Nauta help Georgia?
MH: I wouldn’t say they were anchors for me. I was going to make the decision on my own, but I really knew the guys at Georgia I was going to play with. Those are great guys. I’ve been playing against Ben for four years. I know what he is all about. I’ve been playing against Isaac for two years. I know what he is all about. Jacob and I became cool over the past year and last summer. Everybody at Georgia I was cool with and friends with. I felt I was so close to the whole recruiting class like Elijah (Holyfield) and Chad (Clay) and Chauncey (Manac) and late even with a guy like David Marshall. All of them are my boys. We played together at the Rising Seniors. I feel like that kind of helped to draw me in at Georgia, too. I could be myself around those guys.
DN: Which school came in second?
DN: What could the Tide have done to sign you? Does Nick Saban need to add a weatherman to the support staff?
MH: I feel like if they recruited me before Coach Pruitt got there and was on me hard before he got there, then I think I would’ve ended up at Bama.
DN: Which school came up with the best gimmick?
MH: Tennessee. They sent me like a full-size poster like in pieces you put together. I put those pieces together and it was me in a Tennessee uniform.
DN: Was there a rumor that just wasn’t true?
MH: That I was silently committed to Georgia. I think that was the biggest. The big rumor was I was already going to Georgia and was committed to Georgia when I really wasn’t yet.
DN: When did you finally make a silent commitment to Kirby Smart?
MH: I think I verbally told him I wanted to come and that I was coming, but then again I really didn’t make my final decision until I went to Texas for that USA game. That was when I really knew where I was going. I was set on Georgia for a time, but then when Coach Pruitt went to Alabama that made me start thinking again.
DN: Did you know that people thought you were bluffing?
MH: I think a lot of people thought that with a lot of schools. Not just Alabama. I was looking at Ohio State really hard. There’s a guy there named Austin Mack. That’s my boy. We are real cool. I wanted to go play with him as well and was really considering Ohio State. I tell people that if I really wanted to go off to go to school, then it would have been to Ohio State. Or even Michigan. I loved Michigan as well. When I went up there on that visit, it was the best time I had on any visit. I just didn’t want to go away so far. The distance was not a problem, but in the end, it was just that I really dug having my momma in the stands to watch me every game.
DN: Was there a big secret you kept?
MH: I thought the biggest secret was Georgia was my leader. I thought it was the biggest secret I kept. I guess it was the worst secret I kept because everyone still felt I was going to Georgia. I always loved Georgia. Another big secret I kept was I knew Isaac (Nauta) was going to Georgia. I knew that for a minute. I think everybody knew he was going to Georgia for a little while afterward. I knew that for a bit before that. I knew when Michail Carter was committing to Georgia. I had a talk with him as well when I spoke with Tyler Simmons.
DN: You had a big role with Tyler. What did you say to get him to come to Georgia?
MH: I told Tyler the real deal. I said ‘Tyler, man you need to listen to this. If you think about it (four-star) Trevon Diggs just committed to Alabama. Calvin Ridley is still there. If you look at Alabama’s offense they are a one-receiver offense. Julio Jones. Amari Cooper did his three years. Calvin Ridley will do his three years. Then another receiver will do three years. But when you get there Calvin is not a junior. He’s a sophomore. You have got to wait for him to get done before you are really getting the ball a lot. You’ll be a junior before you are even playing a lot, but you still have to battle with Trevon.’ I told him you are going to be in the slot and maybe catch the ball 20 times a year until Calvin leaves. I think that hit hard with him a lot because Tyler is the type of guy who wants the ball in his hands. When he gets to Georgia he is going to touch the ball a lot with Jacob throwing the ball around. That kid is special. I feel like you can’t win a championship without a big-time quarterback. Alabama has been so good for so long because their defense has been so good. I just feel like you can’t win it now without a real big-time quarterback. Jacob Eason is a big-time quarterback.
DN: You said you really liked Michigan and it was your best visit. Did you ever think about how cold it was up there?
MH: It was so cold. I saw people walking around in shorts and stuff and thought to myself how in the world do they do that.
DN: How comfortable did you feel on your unofficial visits to Georgia?
MH: Georgia always just felt like home. When I was on a visit to Georgia, I always felt as comfortable there as I did in my own house. That’s what your home state school should be.
DN: How quickly did you hear from Coach Smart once he got the job?
MH: That first night. Coach Smart called and said ‘listen real close. We still want you just to let you know’ and that was all I needed to hear. He said I was still a priority and don’t think we’re not recruiting you hard anymore for a minute but we have to work on these early enrollees first and we are trying to get all these commitments settled. He told me as soon as the early enrollees signed we will be back at you hard. He did that and then he was.
DN: Jeremy Pruitt had to be the hardest to break the news to that you were signing with UGA. What did you say? What did he say?
MH: It was so hard, but Coach Pruitt told me he wanted to either see me at Georgia or Alabama. Those were the only two schools he could see me thriving in that defense. Because they run like the same defense now. Just to say no to him was the hardest thing I had to do. I called him and told him I think I was going to Georgia. Because he had told me to let him know what decision I was going to make. I told him I think I was set on that. He said ‘don’t even worry about it and said I feel you.’ And it wasn’t just Coach Pruitt, I think it was also Coach Z (Tennessee receivers coach Zach Azzanni) who was just as hard to break the news to. Tennessee had been recruiting me since my freshmen year and we were so tight. I messaged him on Twitter and told him and he just told me good luck. Me and Coach Z were as tight as I was with Coach Pruitt. I think Coach Pruitt just told me to be ready because when Alabama plays Georgia they were going to come (and throw) to my side. I told him they better not.
DN: Did any of those guys try a last-minute pitch?
MH: Nah. They seem to understand when it got real close like that. They knew my mind was set.
DN: Which school dropped the ball?
MH: USC. I liked USC a lot because Reggie Bush played there and I loved Cali, too. I really like how USC used Adoree’ Jackson, too. I had also never been out there. Plus I became close with (five-star USC signee) Jack Jones. I loved both USC and Miami but that coaching staff at Miami was so messed up. If Coach (Mark) Richt was at Miami during my process I could have seen myself at Miami as well. Miami was like my dream school growing up. When I visited, I just didn’t like the visit at all. I loved (receivers) coach (Kevin) Beard (who is now at UGA) and I had fun going out but I don’t think that staff was in sync when I was there on my official visit. When Coach Beard came to Georgia that was another sign Georgia was the place for me. Coach Beard taught me a lot of stuff now I’ve been sharing with young kids and young players about how to play receiver. He taught me a lot about being a receiver in one day and he’s a great man of God. He bonded really well with my mom, too. I feel like if Coach Richt was there at Miami my sophomore year and then on, I think that Miami would’ve already been turned around by now.
DN: Got any NCAA rules in mind you feel need to be changed?
MH: They should pay for you and your parents to take an official visit, too. The big schools have all the money and then your parents can see each school, too. They should pay for plane tickets for up to three or four people. That was hard for schools like Michigan and Ohio State to have a chance because when I went to those schools I went by myself. My parents couldn’t see a school like that so far away. It would’ve been hard. Those plane tickets would have been like $800. When my parents can’t see a school that I go visit, I feel that visit is just a visit for fun. You can’t really seriously consider that school then if your parents do not see it.
DN: Did you experience any negative recruiting?
MH: Not really. The coaches I made sure to get close to were straight-up honest with me.
DN: In the end, do you feel like you committed to Georgia or the coaching staff?
MH: I committed to Georgia.
DN: What did you think about Coach Saban?
MH: Coach Saban is a coach that makes you wonder how he is so successful at what he does. It is not like what he says and does is so special, but it is just his presence. He’s Nick Saban. When he comes into a room, you know it. He has such a strong presence. That’s how I feel he gets all those recruits. When you are Nick Saban, it is not like you have to try real hard.
DN: How do you feel about Coach Smart as a recruiter? Will he need to try hard?
MH: I think head coaches that really get into the recruiting process get the big recruits because they show you how much they want you. Coach Smart is such a great hands-on recruiter I think he’ll really help us get this recruiting rolling with the 2017 class. He’s going to recruit players as well as any head coach in the nation. He won’t allow any other coach to outwork him. And I tell everyone this Georgia coaching staff that’s here now will be here for a long time. … They’ve got a least three or four years they will all be here and I feel like in those three or four years we are definitely going to have a championship coming. After that, I feel Georgia will be back to the days when Matthew Stafford and A.J. Green and Knowshon (Moreno) were here. We will always have that elite talent coming in with this coaching staff as hard as they recruit.
Did you miss any of our previous recruiting recaps with UGA’s 2016 signees?
- Tyler Simmons: Why he flipped from Alabama to UGA
- David Marshall: How did UGA flip an Auburn commit? The answer was three years in the making
Unless otherwise indicated, player rankings and ratings are from the 247Sports Composite.
Jeff Sentell covers UGA football and UGA recruiting for AJC.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on who’s on their way to play Between the Hedges.