Hardin fuels Gators with moment of redemption

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Austin Hardin was waiting for this moment.

The redshirt sophomore kicker didn’t know when it would come, but that didn’t matter. He has been envisioning it since the end of last season -- the big stadium, the screaming fans. But more than anything, the importance of the kick.

Hardin went through every kicker’s nightmare last season. No matter what he did or what he changed, the ball wouldn’t go through the goal posts. It ended with Hardin going 4-12 throughout the season, especially hurtful one year after Caleb Sturgis, one of the best kickers in school history, left for the NFL.

But after hitting a 49-yard field goal to give Florida a 10-9 lead with 6:20 remaining in the game, memories of 2013 couldn’t be dimmer.

“There was a lot of adversity in different areas of my life,” Austin Hardin said. “I went through a lot. It was tough to go from a point where coming out of high school, you’re on a career high, then you come into the lowest of the lows that you’ve ever been. I just had to suck it up. I’m here for a reason, so know that and be confident in it. You have to be confident in yourself and getting my confidence back was key in it.

“It was a little bit of redemption. Finally. I knew I could do it. I do it all the time.”

If Saturday’s field goal happened last season, it would’ve been a sigh of relief. But this year, it was expected. It’s that mental turnaround that is the difference for Hardin. As he jogged back to the sideline, he got a pat on the head from head coach Will Muschamp, who also said “hell of a kick” to Florida’s long field goal specialist.

With the split in field goals this season, Hardin didn’t know when the opportunity would come. Senior Frankie Velez is handling field goals when the ball is on the 25-yard line or closer, while Hardin takes the longer ones because he has better leg strength.

“That was a great kick by Austin Hardin,” Muschamp said. “Outstanding. A lot of confidence in him.”

As soon as it came off Hardin’s foot, the celebration in his head started. He had no doubt it was through the goal posts, giving the Gators a one-point lead after the team looked hopeless on offense to end the third quarter.

When Hardin gets on the field this year, he has to slow himself down with a deep breath. That has been one of the biggest difference, allowing his mind to focus only on the kick and not the screaming fans in the stands desperately hoping for a miss to end Florida’s nine-year winning streak over the Volunteers.

But Hardin didn’t cooperate. Last year, maybe he would have. It’s a turnaround that Hardin knew needed to happen, and he had a strong offseason to bring it to fruition.

“It’s one of those tunnel vision things where you’ve got horse blinders on,” Hardin said. “You go out, everything around you is chaotic. You put those blinders on, and it’s just like a flash -- it happens.

“Such a relief to come out of such adversity, have a solid spring and build on that, then go out with the guys that I spend all my time with and hit it.”

The night before the game is the most important part. Hardin and his teammates do their best to enjoy time together and stay loose, but there are always thoughts about the next day’s game. The relaxed feel around the specialists has helped Hardin rebound this fall.

“It was so great to hit a difficult field goal in a windy stadium to help my team out,” Hardin said. “These guys play for 60 minutes, and we may only be called on once or twice. With the way we work field goals, I may be called on once, if lucky, a game.”

On Saturday, once was enough.

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