ATHENS, Ga. — Before Georgia ran its first play from scrimmage during the 42-13 win over Kentucky last Saturday afternoon, sophomore receiver and return specialist Mecole Hardman tried to provide a spark.
Hardman fielded the opening kickoff while standing in his end zone and chose to run it out. He reached the 26-yard line, which is just a yard more than the Bulldogs would have been awarded had Hardman elected to take the touchback, but playing things safe hasn't been his style in recent weeks.
"I think Mecole is getting more and more aggressive," Georgia second-year coach Kirby Smart said last Saturday. "He has improved as a returner."
The 5-foot-11, 183-pounder from Bowman, Ga., has been dynamic in back-to-back games for the Bulldogs, following up his 203 all-purpose yards in the 40-17 loss at Auburn on Nov. 11 with 105 against the Wildcats, including 81 on just three special-teams touches.
In addition to his 26-yard return on the opening kickoff, Hardman had a 20-yard punt return in the second quarter and a 35-yard kickoff return in the third quarter. Hardman's punt return and his 35-yard kickoff return ignited touchdown drives for the Bulldogs, who pulled away for their 10th victory in 11 tries entering this week's game at Georgia Tech.facebook
"He's awesome," Bulldogs senior left tackle Isaiah Wynn said this week. "He gives the offense a good starting point, as opposed to being back around the 20. He's a dangerous weapon, and any time he's back there, you know that he's going to make something happen."
Said Hardman: "It's something that I can do. I just try to make a play for my team and try to get us good field position."
Hardman's performances the past two weekends — he had 142 yards on kickoff returns and 43 yards on punt returns at Auburn — have vaulted him into the conversation about the Southeastern Conference's premier returners. Hardman leads the SEC in kickoff returns with an average of 27.2 yards, and he ranks second in punt returns with a 10.8-yard clip.
His aggressive style did result in a fumbled punt return early in the third quarter at Auburn, which the Tigers turned into a short touchdown drive and a 23-7 lead, but Hardman has Smart's support, as do those who have been clearing paths for him.
"Those guys in front of him are blocking people," Smart said. "Everybody gives credit to the returner, but I give credit to the people up there blocking, because they're sacrificing some pretty vicious hits on blocks to set him up."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.