Georgia saw three of its major pass-catchers and a key running back from the 2018 team declare for the NFL draft Friday.
Wide receivers Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley, tight end Isaac Nauta and running back Elijah Holyfield all announced their early exits.
Georgia also saw freshman tight end Luke Ford reveal his intentions to transfer from the program to Illinois. All this came on the day when news broke of Justin Fields’ decision to transfer to Ohio State.
Underclassmen have until Jan. 14 to declare for the draft, which takes place April 25-27 in Nashville. The NFL combine scheduled for Feb. 26-March 4 in Indianapolis.
“We wish the best to Mecole Hardman, Elijah Holyfield, Isaac Nauta and Riley Ridley as they pursue their careers at the next level,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said in a news release. “All four of these juniors contributed significantly to our success during the last two seasons and we look forward to them making the best out of their shot at the NFL. As with all our players, we also will encourage them to complete their degrees to get prepared for the next chapter of their lives.”
Hardman opened this season on fire. He scored at least one touchdown in each of the first four games of the season, including a two-touchdown performance against Middle Tennessee that featured a punt return for a touchdown.
The speedy 5-foot-11, 183-pounder is widely considered one of the fastest players on Georgia’s football team.
Texas kept the ball away from Hardman in the Sugar Bowl, as he had just one catch for 3 yards and one kick return for 28 yards in the 28-21 loss to the Longhorns on Tuesday night.
Hardman finished this season with 34 catches for 532 yards and seven touchdowns — but he had only 10 catches for 174 yards over the final seven games of the 2018 campaign.
If Hardman had enough punt returns to qualify this season, his 20.06 average on 16 returns would have ranked second in the nation to New Mexico’s Marcus Hayes (21.2).
Hardman also had 14 kick returns for 353 yards, an average of 25.21 yards.
Ridley led the Bulldogs with 44 catches for 570 yards and nine touchdowns this season.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder had five catches in the Sugar Bowl for a team-high 61 yards.
Ridley came on the national radar with his 6-catch, 82-yard performance in the College Football Playoff Championship game in Atlanta last season.
Ridley’s season-high receiving yardage in 2018 came against Missouri when he had 87 yards on five catches.
Against Georgia Tech, Ridley had a career-high two touchdown catches.
“I am thankful that I chose the University of Georgia and was a part of an outstanding program. I could not imagine any other program preparing me for the next the way this one has,” Ridley wrote in a Twitter post. “Thank you to coach Smart and the entire phenomenal coaching staff for molding me into the athlete I am today. My experience here has been nothing less than absolutely amazing.”
Holyfield, one of four team captains selected for the Sugar Bowl, joined D’Andre Swift in rushing for more than 1,000 yards this season, marking the second consecutive season in which Georgia has had dual 1,000-yard rushers.
Nick Chubb and Sony Michel each had more than 1,000 yards rushing last season.
Holyfield, the son of former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield, led the Bulldogs with 62 yards on 12 carries in the Sugar Bowl, giving him 1,018 on the season, 31 behind Swift.
The 5-foot-11, 215-pounder averaged 6.4 yards per carry — the same as Swift — and his seven touchdowns tied for third on the team behind Swift (13) and receiver Riley Ridley (9).
A three-year starter for the Bulldogs, Nauta finishes his college career with 68 catches for 902 yards and eight touchdowns. He might have been under-utilized as a receiver, following a freshman year of 29 catches with a sophomore season of nine. But he had 30 this past season and finished with a career-best 430 yards. He caught just one pass for three yards in Tuesday night’s loss to Texas.
Heading into the Sugar Bowl, Nauta hinted that it wasn’t going to be production or even money for him when it came to making his NFL decision. It was all about opportunity and timing.
“How’s your body feel? How long can you do it? Is graduating and getting your degree important to you? Winning the national championship,” Nauta told DawgNation two days before the game. “There’s so much stuff that goes into it and I think that’s what makes the decision so hard. I’ve definitely felt the weight of those questions, no doubt.”
Ford came to Georgia as the nation’s No. 3 tight end in the 2018 recruiting class out of Carterville, Illinois. Ford appeared in 9 games this season and recorded just 1 catch for 4 yards.
With Ford leaving, that leaves Georgia with only Charlie Woerner and John Fitzpatrick as the only scholarship tight ends. Georgia has signed 4-star tight end Ryland Goede as a member of the 2019 class. He will be an early enrollee, but he is recovering from an ACL injury.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.