Mecole Hardman spun quickly to his left before sprinting down the right sideline. During an individual drill, Hardman was practicing a stop-and-go route, where he faked the curl before turning up the field for a deep ball. When Hardman made his move, it seemed like only a split-second had elapsed before he was 25 yards away from his initial location.
The ensuing pass was slightly overthrown to a streaking Hardman, who reached out his right arm to get a hand on the football. He tipped the ball in the air before completing the catch.
Hardman, who was a cornerback through the entire 2016 season, has seen additional reps at receiver during the first two weeks of spring practice. With Hardman’s offensive role increasing, head coach Kirby Smart was asked if he regretted not getting the former five-star prospect offensive touches during his freshman season.
“Absolutely not,” Smart said.
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Smart’s reasoning was this: Hardman would have played behind receiver Isaiah McKenzie and his touches would have been limited. McKenzie put in his best season at Georgia, catching 44 passes for 633 yards and seven touchdowns. McKenzie has since declared for the NFL draft, opening up a spot at slot receiver.
In addition to McKenzie’s important role on offense, Hardman spent the majority of the 2016 season on the second team at cornerback. Due to a numbers issue, Hardman was only a couple of injuries away from entering a game on defense.
Georgia figures to be in a different position in 2017. While Hardman is needed at cornerback for the spring, five freshmen at his position will join the roster this summer. If those freshmen give Smart enough confidence in their ability to contribute early, it could make moving Hardman to receiver easier for the coaching staff.
Getting Hardman those receiver reps is important for the time being in the event he is moved to the offensive side of the ball full-time in the fall. Smart noted that Hardman has the intellect to juggle responsibilities during the spring season.
“We’re experimenting with Mecole,” Smart said. “He’s a bright kid. You don’t want to do this with a kid who struggles to learn. Mecole doesn’t struggle to learn. He’s football savvy. He has good football instincts, intelligence. He picks up on things well. He enjoys it. He likes coming in to meet extra, so you feel comfortable being able to challenge him with more information.”
Hardman has similar speed, agility and wiggle as McKenzie, and would seemingly be a fit for a slot receiver role. During individual drills, McKenzie worked directly behind Terry Godwin as a slot receiver.
Receiver Javon Wims said Hardman has impressed his position group thus far.
“He’s very fast. We can use that speed in the receiving room, especially in the slot,” Wims said. “We can definitely use that speed. He’s versatile.”
Hardman impressed at receiver during the week of practice at 2016 U.S. Army All-American Bowl. In the all-star game, Hardman caught three passes for 36 yards. But that served as a limited sample size of playing time at receiver for Hardman.
In high school at Elbert County, Hardman earned his five-star standing on the offensive side of the ball. But he was a quarterback who earned a reputation for making a ton of electric plays as a runner. As much as Hardman had to learn during his transition to cornerback, there is also a lot to learn at receiver, too.
And Smart noted Hardman still has to learn the intricacies of the receiver position at the college level.
“He’s a fast kid but he’s not just straight-line fast,” Smart said. “He’s quicker than he is fast. He has an elusiveness that gives us something maybe we don’t have offensively right now. He’s got to become a more natural receiver.”