BOURBONNAIS – The start of the preseason with Friday’s game in Carolina against the Panthers means many different things to many different players. Maybe the first time on an NFL field. First time against a real NFL team other than your own. Another chance to earn a shot at continuing the NFL dream.
For Brandon Hardin, the Carolina game will not be a “first” but the game will mean more to Hardin perhaps than any others in Bank of America Stadium come Friday night.
It was in a preseason game last Aug. 18 against the Washington Redskins that Hardin’s career and possibly more came dangerously close to ending.
Hardin, the Bears’ third-round pick in the 2012 draft, lay prostrate and motionless on the field for 10 minutes after a tackle of Washington tight end Logan Paulson. He eventually was taken from the field, recovered and subsequently was placed on injured reserve.
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On Friday, when players no longer need to pull up on their hits as they do in practices against teammates, Hardin steps onto the field again. He won’t be thinking about his neck.
“Because I’ve wholly, completely recovered,” Hardin said. “Really the only thing I may think about in that regard is not hitting like that again. Definitely I have to keep my aggressive style and I won’t let that situation that happened to me deter me from making hits and being aggressive.”
Hardin ironically was aiming to avoid the tight end’s head and also using his own. He aimed for Paulson’s midsection but his head lowered and instead of a shoulder tackle, disaster.
“It happened and I’ll learn from that situation, to not do that again, obviously.”
With strong safety Major Wright in a contract year, Hardin as a No. 3 pick looms as potentially more than just a “depth” pick in GM Phil Emery’s first draft.
But for any young player restarting after missing a full year, the comeback challenge is enormous. For one who had missed his final college season at Oregon State because of a broken shoulder, it was doubly so.
For a player who was in the process of making a position change from college cornerback to NFL safety, the curve gets steeper and then there is setting aside any fear from the neck injury.
“I keep on telling myself, I’m made to play football,” said Hardin, who is listed as third team but has practiced at free safety primarily alongside Craig Steltz with the No. 2 defense. “I have to believe in myself that I may have a little bit of rust in order to play well. And I have to prove to everyone here – the coaches and everyone -- that I can play in live situations, not just drills, not just practice, but live situations.”
Early impressions of a “new player
Hardin is climbing back into the game in the same general defensive system that he was working in last year, and he has the same defensive backs coach in Jon Hoke.
That has helped, and Hardin already has impressed new coordinator Mel Tucker with the surest way to a defensive coach’s heart:
“He’s forced a couple takeaways,” Tucker said, “and I think he’s picking up the details of the position, his reads and things like that, which help him play faster, helps him be in the spot a lot more often.
“I think every day he’s learning a lot more about exactly what he’s supposed to do. He’s still a ‘new’ player.”
The scheme was difficult for Hardin. Safety play in the general Cover-2 base seems simple – an area of responsibility and don’t let anyone get behind you. But it is considerably more than that, as Hardin struggled to learn.
“Last year moving from a true corner to a safety, I was kind of bug-eyed for the first practices and in game situations,” Hardin admitted. “Now I truly do feel comfortable back there and I have to make that apparent in the game situations.
“Now that I’ve been around the system, it seems easier, knowing your assignments. And with knowing everything comes confidence and what I think will show on the field is more confidence in my ability.”