After first-game splash, Hardy getting feet wet Great stats in debut, Jaguars LB continues to learn, make progress

November 07, 1996|By Peter Zellen | Peter Zellen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Kevin Hardy knew what was ahead when the Jacksonville Jaguars made him the second overall pick in this year's NFL draft.

Expectations were high, coaches were demanding and the fans were maybe a little more demanding. After Hardy registered 11 sacks his senior season at Illinois, people figured he would resemble another linebacker who was drafted second overall 15 years ago -- future Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor.

When he arrived in Jacksonville, the attention never stopped. Hardy was often surrounded by the local media and frequently a topic on sports talk radio shows.

In his pro debut, Hardy helped guide the Jaguars to a 24-9, season-opening victory at home against the AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers. The only rookie starting, Hardy finished with five tackles, including a third-quarter sack.

In addition, Hardy killed a Pittsburgh rally by intercepting a pass with the Jaguars leading, 17-9, with less than five minutes remaining.

The fans remark that Hardy hasn't had a game like that since, but Hardy and the Jaguars say he's done nothing but play better.

"I started the year kind of fast in the Pittsburgh game and, of course, you're not always going to have good games like that," Hardy said. "But I feel that I'm getting better each game, and I think that's what you want your rookie season. Those are big plays, those plays I made in that first game and you look at anybody and everybody doesn't have those kind of games every game.

"I think I'm doing things in each game that don't really show up in the stats and people really don't see, like taking on a blocker or taking out two people so the next man can make the tackle -- things like that which I think are important."

And that's exactly the attitude the Jacksonville coaching staff has.

"He started off the season with probably a game that a lot of veteran players didn't start the season off with," said outside linebackers coach Lucious Selmon. "But down here, being with a new team, a lot of people felt that with Kevin taken as high in the draft as he was that that's how he needed to start. But that's something that never went to Kevin's head as far as 'Hey, I had a great game and it's all going to come automatically.' He got right back in the classroom the next week and back out onto the field to work his butt off."

Hardy is second on the team in tackles with 58 and now has three sacks and two interceptions. His steady improvement -- along with that of fellow rookies like defensive end Tony Brackens and defensive back Aaron Beasley -- is a big reason why the Jaguars' defense comes into Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens ranked fourth in the AFC and seventh in the NFL.

"Most rookies struggle at first but he stepped right into the lineup and made some big plays for us and helped make difference in our defense," said defensive end Jeff Lageman. "We were really counting on him to develop early and he's done that so far. The only thing he has to work on right now is his focus because we've still got a long way to go this season."

Tom Coughlin and his staff are not surprised by Hardy's consistent improvement but now consider using him in more situations. Despite 18 sacks in four seasons at Illinois, Hardy came into the draft as a specialist against the run. But now Hardy is playing in several pass-rushing situations, too.

"Kevin came in as a very talented rookie that was going to be used in regular defense and in the nickel package as well. He's had everything thrown at him on the field and learned under fire in all situations and he has progressed," said Coughlin. "He has a knack for being in the right place at the right time and certainly gives us an awful lot of excitement about his play and his future play."

But Hardy admits the process is sometimes difficult as the players are bigger, stronger and faster than in college.

"I still have trouble at times picking up the schemes of things and that's the most integral part of this whole process -- to learn the schemes in the pro game," said Hardy. "The main thing I want to do is help this team win and even though we really haven't done a good job with that, we're playing some pretty solid defense right now."

Pub Date: 11/07/96

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