ATHENS — Don’t look now, but Mecole Hardman is getting some Heisman Trophy mention.
Right now, it’s mostly a regional proposition.
But if Georgia’s junior receiver/kick returner keeps up his good work, it’s bound to take gain some national momentum. Another standout performance for the No. 2-ranked Bulldogs in a nationally-televised game at Missouri this Saturday (noon, ESPN, WSB AM-750, FM-95.5) would definitely help him gather some traction.
“He’s on the radar,” said ESPN senior reporter Mark Schlabach, who votes on that outlet’s weekly Heisman Watch poll. “I just think it’s really early and he probably hasn’t done enough yet to be considered one of the top five candidates. Hardman’s probably in the group after that.”
Predictably, it’s not something Hardman has even considered.
“That’s just hype and you don’t want to listen to the hype,” Hardman said after the Bulldogs’ 49-7 win over Middle Tennessee State this past Saturday. “If you feed into the hype you start playing poorly. I don’t want to listen to that. I just want to play our brand of ball and make plays whenever I can to help the team the best way I can.”
Hardman has been a lot of help so far. He currently leads the Bulldogs in all-purpose yardage with 312 and receiving with 12 catches for 187 yards and three touchdowns. More importantly, he has scored in every game, including twice in this last one.
Included in those scores was a 70-yard punt-return touchdown. It was a long-awaited, highly-anticipated event for Hardman, who came tantalizingly close to busting one for a TD several times last season, when he led the SEC in punt return yardage.
“I can’t take all the credit for it because our punt-return team, the guys in front of me, I mean, they work so hard it’s unbelievable and I feel like I owe that to them,” said Hardman, who had 90 yards on two returns Saturday. “I feel like I finally gave them something they can be proud of, especially after two years. I definitely owe them for blocking and holding their guys up.”
Georgia coach Kirby Smart was happy to hear Hardman credit the Bulldogs’ blockers on punt returns. He singled out receivers Tyler Simmons and Jayson Stanley, who are charged with blocking the opposing teams’ gunners, for providing Hardman clean passage on his TD return.
Indeed, Hardman fielded the ball at the 30 and carried it straight up the middle of the field untouched. Halfway down the field, Hardman cut right to the Georgia sideline, then juked the punter back to the middle of the field. He entered the end zone between the hash marks.
Smart ribbed his star returner about finally taking one to the house.
“The first text Mecole will get will be (former Georgia punter returner) Isaiah McKenzie, and he’ll tell him ‘about time,'” Smart said with a chuckle. “Mecole was long overdue to score one, and if he had been tackled by the punter, we may have had to make a change back there.”
The Bulldogs won’t have to do that. Hardman does share time with senior Ahkil Crumpton on punt returns, but he’s now averaging 31.6 yards on three returns, so he’ll probably hang onto that job for at least another week.
Meanwhile, Hardman is also Georgia’s starting flanker, their leading receiver with 187 yards and one of their biggest offensive threats with four touchdowns so far. That’s what is bringing him so much national acclaim, all the sudden.
Whether that might translate into a Heisman or any other national award won’t be known for a while. But some of Hardman’s teammates think it should.
“I feel like it’s possible,” said Simmons, a fellow wideout. “If he keeps doing the things he’s doing, and we keep blocking for him on the outside, and he keeps returning kicks like that, it’s possible for him to get the Heisman.”
Said Smart: “As far as national acclaim, that’s something that you guys handle more than me. I respect Mecole. He has elite speed, he’s physical, he’s a lot more confident in his hands, and the speed he has, you see it with his ability to make people miss. He continues to gain confidence, and I’m all for our players to get all the attention they can, but that’s not my objective.”
Schlabach said he currently has West Virginia’s Will Grier, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa atop his list. The common denominator in that group is they all play quarterback.
The last receiver to win the Heisman was Michigan’s Desmond Howard in 1991. Howard, too, was a premier returner.
“It’s quarterback award these days,” Schlabach said. “A running back has to have a really good year, almost a record-setting season to win it. It’s been a while since a receiver was a legitimate candidate. Larry Fitzgerald didn’t even win it and he’s probably the greatest receiver in the last 20 years. So it’s really hard.”
But Schlabach said he, for one, is definitely taking Hardman under serious consideration.
“The one thing Hardman has in his favor is he’s also one of the most dynamic returners in the country,” Schlabach said. “And a lot of his explosive plays this year have been just catching a screen pass and making people miss. He’s fun to watch.”
About that there is no argument.