Former Arizona State defensive tackle Marcus Hardison’s road to the NFL began inconspicuously at Charlotte High School in Punta Gorda, Fla.
He once paced the sidelines as a backup quarterback and defensive lineman, but the lack of playing time wasn’t based on Hardison’s raw talent.
“He came to us as a quarterback,” Charlotte football coach Binky Waldrop said in a telephone interview. “Big body. He’s got a rifle for an arm. He could throw a football more than 80 yards.”
While Waldrop appreciated the arm strength, there was one issue after the football left Hardison’s hand.
“It was incredible,” Waldrop said with a laugh, “but you never knew where it was going.”
Waldrop said Hardison typically entered games with the score no longer in doubt, and the team had a specific play catered to Hardison’s size.
“The few games that he got into – the blowout games – our favorite play with him was the quarterback sneak,” Waldrop said. “You have a 6-4, 260-pound quarterback, he averaged about 8 yards a sneak.”
Waldrop said it eventually became clear Hardison wouldn’t be starting under center the rest of his high school career.
But fate intervened at the midseason point of Hardison’s junior year to provide an opportunity to place him on his current path.
Waldrop said Charlotte was playing Venice High School when three of his defensive tackles went down with injuries before halftime. Waldrop turned to Hardison and sent him into the game.
“In the second half, it was like, ‘I know you don’t know what you’re doing, but we’re going to put you out there,’” Hardison said in a telephone interview. “I went out there and I hit them, and had one of the best games ever. I was like, ‘I kind of like this!’”
Waldrop said Hardison went on to record double-digit tackles against Venice and the rest – as the cliché goes – is history.
“He started playing defensive tackle, of course, and did a great job,” Waldrop said.
With offense no longer his future, Hardison focused on improving his craft on defense. And two NFL players he admired growing up influenced how he approached the game.
“Julius Peppers has always been my favorite defensive lineman,” Hardison said. “Even though I was playing quarterback, I liked him. My all-time favorite is Ray Lewis. It was always destiny to play defense because my best two players play defense.”
Hardison took the junior college route after high school and attended Dodge City Community College in Kansas.
And his potential captivated former Dodge City football coach Bob Majeski, now an assistant head football coach at Highland Community College in Kansas.
“Very, very athletic for a big kid,” Majeski said in a telephone interview. “The thing is we knew he was going to grow and that was the thing that intrigued us a bit. He’s a very good athlete knowing he was going to grow in that big frame he had.”
Dodge City’s basketball team once took advantage of Hardison’s athletic ability.
Majeski said he was approached by the men’s basketball coach, who asked Majeski if he could borrow some of the football players to help his basketball players get physical during practice.
Hardison, who also played basketball in high school, was a natural selection.
“After about two weeks of it,” Majeski said, “our head basketball coach came in and told me, ‘If we had Marcus the whole year, he would have played valuable minutes for me when the game was on the line.’ That tells you how athletic he is.”
Hardison, of course, was in Dodge City to play football and he made an impact, finishing his two-year stint with 96 total tackles and seven sacks before leaving for Arizona State.
“I loved every minute in Dodge City,” Hardison said.
His junior year as a Sun Devil proved uneventful, as he totaled just five tackles and a sack after appearing in 13 contests, which included the Holiday Bowl.
Something clicked, however, in his senior season.
Hardison exploded to post impressive numbers as a pass rusher, leading the Sun Devils in sacks with 10. He added 53 tackles (32 solo), two interceptions, two passes defensed and three forced fumbles en route to earn second-team All-Pac-12 honors by Phil Steele and honorable mention All-Pac-12.
Hardison left college with 18 total sacks when combining his junior college statistics. And don’t expect the former high school quarterback to harbor sympathy for the victims to fall in his grasp the past four years.
“I know how it feels to move around in the pocket to try and not get sacked in the backfield,” Hardison said with a chuckle. “But it feels a lot better doing the sacking than being sacked.”
Hardison’s propensity to get to the opposing quarterback and be a disruptive force on the defensive line during the 2014 season placed him on the radar for NFL teams.
His week-long performances during practice at the Senior Bowl commanded the attention of NFL Draft prognosticators, including CBS Sports and NFLDraftScout.com senior draft analyst Rob Rang.
“The thing is he wasn’t very productive his first year, and then this past season he wasn’t very productive the first half of the year,” Rang said in a telephone interview. “Then as the year went on, he got more and more productive, carried that through with his defensive performance in Mobile at the Senior Bowl. I think he’s a player that is rising up the board.”
While a minor knee injury suffered during the Senior Bowl prevented him from working out at the NFL Scouting Combine, Hardison made up for it during his Pro Day on March 6.
But he admits to anxious moments leading to the workout when considering the heavy NFL presence of scouts and team personnel at Arizona State.
“I was a little nervous because I didn’t get to go to the Combine and perform like I wanted to while I was there,” Hardison said. “It kind of put some stress on me because I’m like, ‘I got to kind of kill Pro Day, show how athletic I am.’ Once Pro Day hit, I got in the drills and was like, ‘Let’s just have fun.’”
Consider that mission accomplished.
The 6-4, 305-pound Hardison clocked unofficial 4.94 and 4.92 40-yard dash times, followed by an unofficial 4.65 in the 5-10-5 Short Shuttle and 7.29 in the 3-cone drill.
His 3-cone time would have placed him in the top 10 among the defensive linemen performers at the Combine, while his 40-yard dash performance would have placed him among the top 22.
“Hardison is an interesting player,” Rang said. “He’s a little bit of a defensive end in a defensive tackle’s body. He’s got long arms, he’s athletic, but he’s 300 pounds. I think there’s upside with him and I think we saw a taste of it with how well he played with the sacks in his senior year.”
CBS Sports and NFLDraftScout.com currently rank Hardison as the 11th-best draft prospect at defensive tackle and project him as a third-round pick.
But being on the outside of the top 10 players at his position isn’t how Hardison views what he brings to the 2015 class.
“I feel that in my mind, my confidence level, I’m the best defensive lineman in this draft,” Hardison said. “I’ve been saying that to myself since summer, so I kind of like motivated myself throughout this whole season to have the season I had. I’m still a little underrated, but that’s fine. It is what it is.”
Hardison’s declaration doesn’t come as a surprise to his former juco football coach.
“If he said anything else, I would be disappointed,” Majeski said. “The thing is he is confident. He’s not cocky, he’s not arrogant. He has very good self-esteem; he can thank his mother for that. When you’re at that level, you have to think you’re the best. Otherwise, there’s no use of stepping on the field if you don’t have that belief in yourself. That’s one thing that separates those guys because they have great self-confidence. But very few of us have the talent to match that and I think Marcus is a kid that has both.”
The recent months have been a whirlwind ride for Hardison.
He said he had formal interviews with the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Combine, and the Kansas City Chiefs were among teams he met with at the Senior Bowl.
Hardison has “numerous team visits,” including the Minnesota Vikings, scheduled in the coming weeks, a source informed ChiefsDigest.com.
The interest in Hardison, who said he will continue training at Arizona State, shouldn’t surprise considering his rising draft stock since his Pro Day workout.
Much like his start at Charlotte High School, he has the talent and now waits for the opportunity to showcase it.
Hardison’s natural athletic skills and ability to get to the quarterback affords NFL teams the flexibility to place him anywhere on the defensive line.
And Hardison said scouts at his Pro Day put him through a wide variety of position drills, lining him up at 0-technique, 3-technique and 5-technique.
“I experienced all of the positions because I’m versatile,” Hardison said. “And me going into the Senior Bowl, they threw my primary position to the 3-tech. I took that and ran with it and competed. I ended up doing really, really well at it. A lot of teams see me at a 3-tech in the league.”
The senior draft analyst from CBS Sports and NFLDraftScout.com agreed.
“I think Hardison projects as a 3-technique defensive tackle in a 4-3 alignment,” Rang said. “His burst, his general athletic ability I think lends to him being a penetrating type of defensive tackle. He’s strong enough to be able to hold up, but I don’t think that’s really his game. I think he is a guy who is going to be drafted and expected to develop as an interior pass rusher.”
Still, a true 4-3 or 3-4 base defensive alignment arguably doesn’t exist in today’s NFL. Numerous teams are known to incorporate sub-packages throughout any given matchup depending on weekly opponent.
Hardison was quick to raise that point.
“A lot of teams have a base, but sometimes they only play that base a few plays during the whole game,” he said. “That’s what is good about me. I can play in a lot of defenses and fit in a lot of defenses.”
Regardless of scheme, Hardison’s former coach at Dodge City believes the team ultimately landing his former player will have not just a good football player, but a better person.
Majeski said he is proud to see the type of man Hardison has become, but added he wouldn’t mind seeing a team use his former star player on offense.
“I also think he’s a tight end,” Majeski emphatically said. “I really, really do. I think he can make somebody happy as a tight end. He’s got great hands, great ball skills. He uses his body, he has a big body and can body-up on people.”
Hardison’s mother, Scherry Jefferies, takes joy in watching her son chase his dream.
“To know that my son will have that opportunity, unbelievable,” Jefferies said in a telephone interview. “Thank the Man above because I didn’t do it by myself.”
Still, Jeffries played a rather large role as a single parent in shaping who Hardison and his older brother, Jared, are today.
Jeffries said she instilled in her sons the importance of family, to always do the right thing, be respectful to others, work hard and always go the extra distance to earn respect from others.
“What you do, people will see and that’s how you get your respect,” Jefferies said. “You can’t demand it; you have to show it. That’s the approach I taught my kids.”
Jefferies said she and her two sons will travel to Natchitoches, La., to be with family and close friends for the weekend of the NFL Draft.
Each of them will be glued to the TV during the three-day event in anticipation of hearing Hardison’s name.
“It will be phenomenal to hear his name being called and him being picked by a team,” Jefferies said. “I’m going to jump up and down, run around the house, and then calm down because I can’t get too turned up in front of Marcus. He’s not going to let me do it.”
Hardison’s mother won’t be the only one excited; toss in two of his former head coaches.
“The thing is we all know – we sit and watch – the kids that do get the opportunity to play in the NFL, those careers aren’t very long,” Majeski said. “But the type of person they are, that will last forever. I’m just really happy I got to be a part of Marcus’ life for a few years.”
Hardison’s high school coach echoed Majeski.
“I think Marcus is such a high-character kid,” Waldrop said. “I know sometimes in pro sports that doesn’t mean an awful lot, but whoever gets Marcus will have a pretty classy individual.”
As for Hardison, he said it will be an emotional moment and admits there could be a few tears if he hears his name called out on TV.
But he will return to business mode after the excitement wears off, knowing he will have a coveted opportunity to play in the NFL.
Hardison’s background and upbringing virtually ensures he won’t allow the moment to get too big. He reminds himself every day of his mother, former coaches and anyone who had an influence in his life to remain grounded.
“Just stay hungry and humble,” Hardison said. “That’s the thing that motivates me every day, waking up thinking about all the people that helped me get where I’m at today. That motivates me every day. Get up and do what I got to do.”