Bull­dogs will need a short mem­ory

Hard­man knows muff was costly, but punt re­turner and UGA can’t kick them­selves over Auburn de­ba­cle.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - FRONT PAGE - By Chip Tow­ers

Mecole Hard­man had a stel­lar game against Auburn. But the re­sult, along with a muffed punt, must be put be­hind him.

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.

“1979, 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 Satur­day. The sopho­more 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, Hard-

man 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 the Tigers ev­ery time he ended up with the ball in his hands.

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 leads the SEC and is ranked 16th na­tion­ally in kick­off re­turns with a 26.7yard av­er­age. He’s also third in the SEC and 22nd na­tion­ally in punt re­turn av­er­age at 10.2 yards.

More sur­pris­ing than Hard­man’s

fum­ble is the fact 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. 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.”

BOB AN­DRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Ge­or­gia wide re­ceiver/punt re­turner Mecole Hard­man muffs an Auburn punt dur­ing the third quar­ter Satur­day. The Tigers re­cov­ered and scored four plays later to go up 23-7.

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