"I love it. It's a lot like Georgia," Hardage said of his hometown state. "I like the heat."
Of course, FSU's defense caught its share of heat following last season's struggles. The Seminoles ranked 43rd nationally in total defense and were tied for last in the Atlantic Coast Conference with Duke with 16 sacks. Plagued by injuries, inexperience and inconsistency in 2001, the unit will be monitored closely in preseason drills by coaches and fans alike.
"What Florida State's tradition is, yes, it was pretty sad," linebacker Michael Boulware said of last season.
"Even though for most college teams, the numbers are pretty average, we are not trying to be like most college teams. We definitely want to have a big improvement. I don't think you can ask for a better bunch of guys. Everyone is really working hard. I think with the talent we have and the hard work going out on here, I think we should do very well. We have depth and we have a lot of guys who can contribute."
Hardage, a transfer from Jones County Community College, wants to be one of those guys. He enters preseason drills ranked third on the depth chart at middle linebacker behind seniors Jerel Hudson and Robert May. Hudson must continue to lose weight to be at his most effective, especially on outside runs and pass coverage, while May, a junior college transfer, played sparingly in his initial season.
A member of FSU's incoming recruiting class, Hardage enrolled at FSU in January and hoped to make an immediate impact during spring drills. However, Hardage suffered a partially torn right Achilles tendon and was forced to watch from the sidelines. While the injury did not require surgery, there wasn't much Hardage could do but sit, watch and absorb each and every detail.
Linebackers coach Joe Kines, meanwhile, rotated many of his younger linebackers between the outside and middle slots.
"I watched the guy (Jerel Hudson) in front of me, and I learned and listened to everything the coaches had to say," Hardage said. "By listening, I felt my mind was already in the game, though my body wasn't there. Yes, it was disappointing (not playing) but there's no question I know what's going on. Now it's just a matter of getting back out there and making plays."
Hardage says he is nearly back to 100 percent despite continued soreness. He participated in the Seminoles' strength and conditioning testing, running a 4.69 40 and benching 384 pounds. Of the three middle linebackers, Hardage had the best 40 -- Hudson (4.87) and May (4.86) -- and 10-yard explosion (1.66 to 1.70 for May and 1.71 for Hudson). The 6-1, 235-pound Hardage says his game is built around quickness and explosiveness.
"I am just trying to get in shape and rehab my injury, so that I can perform better and give my coaches 100 percent," said Hardage, who is yes-sir, no-sir polite.
"It was disappointing because I let myself down (spring drills). I thought that being injured, I couldn't give the coaches and Florida State what they deserve and that's 100 percent Nate. And I couldn't give it to them. That kind of disappointed me because all the people were depending on me and I kind of let them down as well as myself. I just want to be out on the field. I feel like I am one of the best (linebackers), so if I get the chance to perform, I am going to rise to the occasion."
Hardage recorded 62 tackles and forced five fumbles during his sophomore season at Jones Community College. From Albany, Ga., he also was a first-team all-state selection in Class 3A during his senior prep season, finishing with 144 tackles and 16 sacks. He was ranked the 35th prospect nationally by SuperPrep. Hardage also hopes to regain a season of eligibility from the NCAA. Hardage claims he dressed for two games but did not play during his freshman season at Jones Community College.
"I am still waiting on a ruling but it doesn't matter -- I am going to make the best of the time I am here," Hardage said.
Hardage continues to spend that time in preparation for the arrival of camp. Kines says Hardage has made progress, saying, "Nate has been coming around a little bit. It took him a little while to catch on. Not the football part, but the work part."
And Hardage admits he must take full advantage of the hot, summer Tallahassee afternoons. FSU is his new home, and it's no secret Hardage needs a good preseason since junior college players are looked upon to contribute immediately.
"The biggest thing has been trying to nurse (Achilles heel) and at the same time to get in shape," Hardage said. "That's what is hard. I was disappointed in my 40 times because I've run faster. But that's no excuse. We have to get it done on the field. We are extremely talented, first string through fourth string. I know Jerel can play and I can learn a lot from him. I just want to be ready to contribute in any way I can."