Jul 9, 2014, 11:30 AM EST
When Brian Kelly inherited the Notre Dame football program, some roster deficiencies stuck out more than others. One of the largest was at safety, where Kelly found little depth behind Harrison Smith, Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter. That’s what made Eilar Hardy such an important recruit.
The Ohio native was the perfect blend of need and ability, the type of player that could see the field quickly not just because the Irish needed him to, but because he was too good to keep off of the field.
But an early knee injury suffered during August training camp kept Hardy off the field as a freshman and derailed his development. Only in 2013 did we see the player many thought would arrive earlier in his career, stepping into the starting lineup before a suspension for the Stanford game ended his season on a down note.
With a new coordinator, system and opportunity in place entering his senior season, Hardy is one of the more intriguing players on the roster. Let’s take a closer look.
5’11.5″, 201 lbs.
Senior, No. 4
Hardy came to Notre Dame with some nice offers, a chance to play at Iowa, Arizona, Michigan State and Wisconsin. Ohio State and Michigan didn’t offer the four-star recruit, but Kelly and his staff saw a safety, even if he mostly starred as an offensive weapon on his Pickerington Central team.
Kelly talked about what he and his staff saw in Hardy on Signing Day in 2011.
“Here’s a young man that, really, when you talk about the skilled position, he arguably helped his football team this year on offense as much, or maybe even more, as an offensive player,” Kelly said. . He’s certainly somebody that can play on either side of the ball. We see him fitting a specific need for us early on on the defensive side of the ball, but he’s played cornerback. He’s played a number of different positions. You’ll see him at the safety position.
We really think he’s a dynamic football player.”
Freshman Season (2011): Did not see any playing time after suffering a knee injury in August.
Sophomore Season (2012): Did not see any action.
Junior Season (2013): Played in 10 games, starting against Pitt and BYU. Made 26 tackles on the year, including eight against BYU and seven against Pitt. Made his only tackle for loss against Navy, on a key stop that ended a Midshipmen rally. Was suspended for violating team rules along with Elijah Shumate and didn’t travel to Stanford for the regular season finale.
For a player entering his fourth season in the program, it still feels like Hardy has his best football in front of him. A lot of that is predicated on him finding a job in a very competitive secondary, but Hardy’s 2013 season flashed some of the big play potential and productivity that’s been missing at the safety position.
It’s difficult to ascertain how badly the knee injury setback Hardy, but in the past Kelly talked about the physicality needed at the position holding Hardy out of competition. That didn’t seem to be the case last season, as Hardy quickly built a reputation as a big hitter, and his athleticism allows him to also drop and cover, a skillset the Irish knew they were getting from the beginning.
Hardy will be an interesting test case. As Notre Dame’s recruiting continues to improve in the 2015 cycle, Hardy’s fifth year will be measured against bringing in a promising rookie player. While he’s only played 10 games in his Notre Dame career, Hardy’s ability to mesh in Brian VanGorder’s system will be key.
While Austin Collinsworth has proven himself to be one of the team’s most reliable safeties (and its quickest studies), my gut tells me that Hardy will spend a lot of time on the field in 2014. How it all shakes out with Hardy, Elijah Shumate, Max Redfield and Collinsworth remains to be seen, but a position that’s felt like a question mark since Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta left should be better this year than last.
Hardy has upside and he’s shown an ability to be productive, as we saw when he was in the starting lineup. And in a secondary aching for playmakers, putting together a big fall camp could be enough to get him into the mix early in the season.
We have yet to see Hardy at his best. And while some have argued that there’s little chance he’ll return for a fifth year, Kelly puts a premium on veteran players that can contribute, even if it’s in a supporting role. That’s what makes Hardy’s suspension before the Stanford game so troubling. He had just moved into the starting lineup after playing solid football. You can’t make that mistake after three long seasons working your way into a job.
There’s no evidence that the suspension has been held against Hardy, so it doesn’t make sense for us to do it, either. So if we see Hardy playing in 2014, there’s every reason to believe he’ll be doing so in 2015 as well.
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