Punter no match for Hardman’s speed Letting it roll
ATHENS, Ga. — Mecole Hardman is one of the fastest players in college football.
Matthew Bonadies is a 211pound Middle Tennessee State University punter.
It wasn’t a fair fight.
On the first punt return for a touchdown of his college career, Hardman broke up the middle midway through the second quarter and then headed to the right sideline. Only Bonadies stood in the way of the score at the MTSU 30, but the speedy Georgia receiver made an inside move and blew past him to complete the 70-yard score that put the Bulldogs up 28-0 in their eventual 49-7 blowout.
“That’s not fair,” Hardman said of his final obstacle. “The rule as a punt returner is to never get tackled by the punter, and it’s the same for the kicker on kickoff returns. You’ve got to live by those rules, and I would have caught — I don’t know what my teammates would have said if I had gotten tackled right there.
“I definitely had to curve back in and score. It was fun.”
Hardman notched the first punt-return touchdown for Georgia since Isaiah McKenzie reached the end zone from 82 yards out against Louisiana-Lafayette in 2016.
“I feel like we work so hard on it and take so much pride in it and had not gotten the return on investment,” Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said. “We got some return on investment today. Mecole works really hard and spends so much time in practice, and the guys who don’t get the credit are the guys who are blocking up front.”
Said Hardman: “It was a long time coming. We emphasized that a lot in practice this week, and it paid off today.”
MTSU received $1.7 million for playing Saturday at Sanford Stadium, the most expensive opponent Georgia has ever played.
Georgia will pay Arkansas State University $1.8 million to visit next season, having agreed to the MTSU and ASU matchups back in fall 2016. The Bulldogs also agreed in July 2017 to play Kent State in 2022, and they will pay the Golden Flashes $1.9 million for that game.
Smart came out on the field twice in the first quarter to address Ahkil Crumpton and Hardman after they allowed punts to roll dead inside the 15-yard line.
“It’s different every time,” Smart said of his messages to the two players. “We have rules of engagement. If we’re in punt-safe and not returning the ball, then we want them to fair-catch it, but if we don’t, we want them to get out of the way and not be near it. That’s what I was telling Ahkil.”
“With Mecole’s case, we were trying to field the ball and wanted him to return it, and if he couldn’t, we didn’t want him to let it roll inside the 10. We lost some hidden yardage in the game there because of their decisions.”
Odds and ends
Georgia’s 42-point outburst in the first half was its largest since taking a 45-0 lead at intermission during a 66-0 whipping of visiting Troy in 2014. … Earning their first career starts Saturday were freshman left tackle Cade Mays, who replaced an injured Andrew Thomas, and sophomore defensive backs Mark Webb and William Poole. … Georgia was penalized with 1:56 remaining for having two players wearing No. 25 — Crumpton and Quay Walker — on its punt-return team.
Georgia wide receiver Mecole Hardman breaks loose on a kickoff return during the first half of Saturday’s game against Middle Tennessee in Athens, Ga.