ATHENS – Scott Woerner is remembered as one of the greatest punt returners in Georgia football history, and rightly so as he still holds the program record for most return yards in a season and is No. 2 for his career. But it happened to him, too.
“Nineteen-seventy-nine, Virginia, trying to catch the ball on the 6,” said Woerner, a 1980 All-American and a member of the Collegiate Football Hall of Fame. “Muff punt. Six points other team.”
It’s sort of a rite of passage for punt returners. If they field enough of them, sooner or later they probably are going to feel the sting of the dreaded “muff.”
Mecole Hardman now knows that feeling, and it’s something he’d just as soon never feel again.
“You can have a good game, but one play like that, and that’s all anybody remembers,” said Hardman, who had an otherwise memorable game against Auburn on Saturday. “That’s just something I’ve got to work on. I’m going to catch some more punts and hopefully that won’t happen again.”
Hardman was feeling the full effect of that scenario on The Plains of Auburn. The sophomore from Elberton, Ga., had a huge night for the Bulldogs, collecting 203 yards on just 10 touches and thrilling Georgia’s fans will all manner of kick returns. In the end, Hardman never busted one for a touchdown. But he came tantalizingly close a couple of times, most notably on a 47-yard kickoff return.
But it’s the “muff” that everybody was talking about after the game. A muff is when a player tries to field a kick or a punt but mishandles it. While it’s not technically a fumble, it immediately becomes a live ball. Losing possession that way is one of the most devastating plays in football.
No. 1 Georgia was trailing No. 10 Auburn 16-7 early in the third quarter and had just gotten a break when a video review showed the Tigers had not made a first down, as the officials on the field had ruled. So the Tigers had to punt to the Bulldogs and Hardman, who had put a scare in them every time he ended up with the ball in his hands on Saturday.
This time the ball didn’t end up in his hands. Hardman signaled for a fair catch on the high but short punt, but he was unable to field it. The ball went right through his arms and was recovered by Auburn at the Georgia 23. The Tigers scored four plays later to go up 23-7.
It was a momentous play in a game the Bulldogs eventually lost 40-17.
“There was some crazy spin on the ball,” Hardman explained after the game. “I thought I read it right, but it went straight through my hands. I tried to jump on it but they got it. … It was big momentum for them. It’s my fault. I should have caught the ball. I should have looked it all the way in.”
That was Hardman’s first major gaffe as a kick returner. Otherwise, he is making a name for himself in that area of the game. In fact, after his performance Saturday, Hardman now leads the SEC and is ranked 16th nationally in kickoff returns with a 26.7-yard average. He’s also third in the SEC and 22nd nationally in punt return average at 10.2 yards.
Woerner said Hardman shouldn’t beat himself up too much for the miscue. It comes with the territory.
“It’s a silly game,” said Woerner, who returned 88 punts while playing for the Bulldogs, third most in program history. “Some great plays just never get started. Amnesia helps, but a thick skin and a huge ego doesn’t hurt.”
More surprising than Hardman’s fumble is the fact that he has yet to take one “to the house,” as returners like to say. He has been extremely close to breaking free this season, including a couple of times Saturday night.
That says as much about the Bulldogs’ kick-return units as it does Hardman’s speed and skill. Hardman is finding plenty of room to run. That’s a good thing because, generally, he doesn’t “shimmy-and-shake” like his predecessor Isaiah McKenzie did. But Hardman is faster. He just hasn’t been able to get past that last defender.
“He’s doing a tremendous job and the units around him are really doing well,” coach Kirby Smart said. “I think if you ask the other coaches in the league, they’re saying, ‘Good grief, they have all these people blocked.’ So there’s some space there, and he’s had a good opportunity to make some plays. He hasn’t been able to take advantage of that, but I’m not disappointed in anything he’s done. I think he’s gaining more confidence, and he’s making some plays in the kicking game.”
Hardman’s overall game as a play-making threat with the ball in his hands is making strides as well. He moved to slotback this year after playing cornerback as a freshman. Hardman is now the Bulldogs’ third-leading receiver with 13 catches for 181 yards and 3 touchdowns. He has also carried the ball 5 times on jet sweeps, including a 35-yarder he took in for a touchdown against Missouri.
Against Auburn, Hardman had 142 yards on 5 kickoff returns, 43 yards on 3 punt returns, an 11-yard reception and 7-yard run. That’s an average of 20 yards every time he touched the football.
And the Bulldogs would like to do even more with him. A sprinter on the track team in the spring, he’s unchallenged as the fastest player on the team, so offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is trying to scheme up plays that can get Hardman the ball in open space.
Returning kicks is a surefire way. Where the Bulldogs are concerned, the surprise isn’t that Hardman is doing well in that facet of the game, it’s that he hasn’t gotten free more often. To date, his longest scoring play is a 59-yard reception against Missouri.
But he really longs for a kick-return touchdown.
“I had some good returns; I definitely should have scored on one, I think,” Hardman said of the Auburn game. “It’s just something I’ve got to get better on. As a returner, I’ve got to look at the film and see if I’m hitting the right holes and things like that.”
That’s what Smart loves about Hardman the most. Any shortcomings he has had on the field haven’t been the result of neglect.
“I hate [the muff] for him because he works really hard,” Smart said. “I’m in my office ready to watch tape, and he’s still out there catching kicks and catching punts after practice. It’s important to him that he does it. We have to do a good job of simulating some of those kicks and making him catch the hard ones.”
That’s where Hardman was after practice on Monday, catching extra punts after the rest of the team had adjourned to the locker room.
Nobody took that miscue Saturday harder than Hardman. And nobody wants to make folks forget about it more either.
“It definitely hurt coming to the sideline,” he said. “You hate to let down your teammates. But all they’re doing is telling you to keep your head up and go out and make the next play.”
Hardman will be back deep again Saturday against Kentucky. More opportunities await.