ATHENS – Elbert County High School coach Sid Fritts wasn’t in the mood Monday to say, “I told so you.” That’s not his style anyway.
But he did say he wasn’t surprised to see his former player Mecole Hardman streaking through Missouri’s secondary Saturday night at Sanford Stadium. And he suspects we’ll all see a lot more of it before it’s all done.
“He’s a multi-talented football player that I’m sure in time can be a great cornerback,” said Fritts, who played Hardman at quarterback at Elbert County. “But he just has an uncanny knack of running with the football. I had a front-row seat for four years watching him do those things. He’s special with the ball in his hands.”
Georgia came to that conclusion as well; it just took a minute. The Bulldogs tried for a year to make the 5-star prospect a cornerback. Then, hastened by the unexpected departure of Isaiah McKenzie, they decided to move Hardman to receiver full time last spring.
Saturday, as No. 3-ranked Georgia outraced Missouri 53-28 to move to 7-0, Hardman looked like the offensive weapon everybody envisioned when the Bulldogs coaches made that move. He led the Bulldogs with 172 all-purpose yards and scored 2 long touchdowns.
“It felt good,” said Hardman, who is now third on the team with 9 catches for 129 yards. “I’m still transitioning. I’ve still got some work to do, some improvement, some cleaning up. Right now I’m just trying to come into my own and do the best I can do.”
That is probably Hardman’s greatest asset, doing the best he can do. Despite being moved all over the field throughout his career at Georgia, he has maintained a positive, can-do attitude and worked intently without complaint.
But the one thing that is undeniable about this 5-foot-11, 183-pound sophomore is his athleticism. Or, more specifically, his speed.
As Georgia coach Kirby Smart likes to say, the kid “can motor.”
“You guys got to see him with some speed, some burst, some get-open and see him really run,” Smart said. “He does a good job.”
There is no denying Hardman’s straight-ahead speed. Asked after the game Saturday if he was the fastest player on Georgia’s team, Hardman shrugged his shoulders like he wasn’t sure. “Uh, yeah, probably.”
Probably’s right. After all, nobody else on the football team went out for UGA’s nationally ranked track team after spring practice.
Despite showing up in May – which is extremely late in that sport’s calendar – Hardman earned a spot on the Bulldogs’ 4×100-meter relay team at the SEC Championship Meet. With Hardman running the first leg, UGA recorded the fourth-fastest time in school history (39.23 seconds) on the way to a sixth-place finish. Hardman then accompanied the track team to the NCAA East prelims and the NCAA Championships in Eugene, Ore. The plan is for him to return again next spring – after spring football practice, of course.
But there have been many great sprinters who were unable to make an impact on the football field. That’s never been a doubt for Smart or the Bulldogs where Hardman was concerned. It’s been about getting him in the right spot, and they believe they have now at the slot position on Georgia’s offense.
Hardman was able to display the versatility required for that position on Saturday. Four-and-a-half minutes into the contest, Hardman took a handoff on a reverse left and managed to quickly get outside of the Missouri defense for a 35-yard touchdown and a 7-0 Georgia lead. Then, 4½ minutes into the fourth quarter, Hardman caught a short pass from Jake Fromm in the left flat, shook a defender and turned on those jets as he reversed field on the way to a 59-yard touchdown.
Hardman did some good stuff in between those plays, as well. He returned 3 kickoffs for 66 yards, including one on which a Missouri player was ejected for a launching hit to the left side of Hardman’s helmet.
“That was no big deal,” said Hardman, who has emerged as the Bulldogs’ primary kickoff and punt returner. “I got up and shook it off and answered it with a touchdown.”
So Hardman has the toughness factor going for him as well.
None of that was in doubt when he came to Georgia. The issue since making the move to full-time receiver has been the idiosyncracies that come with playing the position, not the least of which is catching the football.
Hardman has had a couple of notable drops this season, including what likely would have been a long touchdown against Notre Dame in the second game of the season. There have been a few others since then, but none Saturday.
“The drops, I don’t know, that’s just me not focusing,” Hardman said. “I’ve just got to keep myself focused, keep myself up and make the plays I know I can make.”
Fritts wanted to reach out to Hardman early in the season but resisted.
“He seemed to be pressing,” Fritts said. “I didn’t want to bother him because I knew he was probably getting hit from everybody telling him what he should and shouldn’t do and all that. I knew he’d get it worked out.”
Hardman has, it seems. That was particularly important last Saturday as Terry Godwin, the Bulldogs’ leading receiver, was sidelined with a rib injury at the 9:35 mark of the second quarter and did not return.
Smart said afterward he thinks Godwin “will be fine,” but his availability for the Florida game in 12 days is questionable, at least for now.
Hardman is showing the Bulldogs can call his number more if needed.
“I’ve just got to take advantage of the opportunities I get,” Hardman said. “I did that [Saturday]. With Terry Godwin going down, I had to step up. That’s what they expected me to do, and Terry expects me to do the same thing. So I just had to do what I had to do.”
That’s helping the Georgia offense do what it needs to do as well. As the season progresses, the stakes continue to rise, and opponents increasingly are going to force the Bulldogs to throw the football by loading up to stop the running game.
Hardman is more than happy to help in that regard.
“It felt good just to open up the offense just a little bit more,” he said. “Got my feet wet a little bit more on the ground. Just showing what I’m capable of doing.”
There’s an old friend back in Elberton who never has doubted that. Fritts is taking a lot of delight in watching his old quarterback run with the ball under his arm again. And he, too, is marveling at what he sees.
“I told my wife as we were watching the game on TV, ‘Man, he’s faster than all those fast guys,’ ” Fritts said, laughing. “I’ve seen him make runs like that since middle school. But I was certainly thrilled to see him break about and have a game that we all knew he could have.”
Smart will second that emotion.
“Mecole is a very attentive player who’s very passionate about the game,” Smart said. “I love the way he approaches each practice and the way he works. I hope that gives him a little more confidence so he continues to grow.”