George Hart III making the most of his opportunity in the Sun Devil backfield
From walk-on to scholarship player, he’s making his mark
TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- There’s no pretense. Not attempt at deception. You know what’s coming.
Herm wants to run.
“We’re going to run the ball,” Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards said. “If you can’t run the ball, you can’t win.”
Edwards’ teams, whether at ASU or in the NFL, have always been characterized by a strong reliance on the ground game. During his tenure in Tempe, his teams have run the ball 58 percent of the time, including rates topping 61 percent in each of the last two seasons.
With ASU’s top two running backs from last season now elsewhere—Rachaad White is a Tampa Bay Buccaneer and Chip Trayanum transferred to Ohio State—the Sun Devil backfield will have a different look in 2022.
Daniyel Ngata returns after providing a spark off the bench during his two seasons in Tempe, and the program added Xazavian Valladay from Wyoming, where he rushed for over 3,200 yards. While those two have taken the lion’s share of the first-team reps in spring and fall practices, others have a chance to contribute.
Tevin White was ASU’s highest-ranked signee in the 2021 recruiting class and participated in spring practices. Deonce Elliott enters his third year in Tempe. And then there’s George Hart III, who passed up on a service academy scholarship and an opportunity to play at home in order to take a chance as a walk-on halfway across the country.
Thanks to his hard work, he has found his faith rewarded with a scholarship and the possibility of a larger role.
Unlike the power runs he’s known for, Hart’s path to ASU was not in a straight line.
“My recruitment process was kind of strange,” Hart admits.
He was not alone.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, his family relocated from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, where Hart would become a key weapon for the Catholic High School offense with his powerful running and high football IQ. As a senior in 2020, he helped lead Catholic to the state’s Division I title, memorably putting those traits on display in the quarterfinals. With Catholic’s starting quarterback out due to injury, Hart filled in, led the offense, and rushed for 192 yards and two touchdowns in the win.
And yet, like many across the country, getting attention from colleges proved challenging amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a member of the Class of 2020, recruiting during a pandemic presented numerous obstacles. In-person contact and visits were prohibited, resulting in recruits across the nation trying to make their college decisions in large part with Zoom calls, virtual campus and facility tours, and digital communication. Being discovered and making connections were, like everything else in life, a little tougher in a pandemic.
Two programs at the FCS level, Georgetown and nearby McNeese State, offered Hart scholarships. His lone FBS scholarship offer came from the Naval Academy, who looked at Hart as a quarterback in their triple option offense. LSU gave him the chance to stay home as a preferred walk-on.
But it was a message from the desert that proved fateful.
Hart had received a call from Arizona State running backs coach Shaun Aguano informing him that if a preferred walk-on spot opened up in Tempe, Hart would be first in line to get it. A few days later, Agauno called back saying the opportunity was there.
The chance to stay home and play for LSU was tempting, particularly to Hart’s family. But Aguano’s honesty and candor stuck out to the young running back. Aguano had stressed that even as a walk-on, Hart would be treated fairly and have every chance to compete for playing time. Ultimately, that promise sealed the deal. Hart became a Sun Devil, and Aguano proved to be true to his word.
“Even though I was a walk-on, I got my fair share of reps, and I made sure to make the most of those reps I got,” Hart said.
As a true freshman in 2021, Hart saw action in 12 games. While primarily playing on special teams, Hart logged 10 carries for 19 yards and caught a pair of passes. Beyond his contributions on the field, his work ethic made a strong impression, which for Hart was just the way he had always approached the game.
As the son of a football coach, Hart had grown up with a focus on all aspects of the game. Harts Jr. and III would spend hours watching film together, and Hart would often be sent film from his father to review while on the bus to some of his games. That understanding provided a solid foundation for Aguano to build upon.
“I love his football intelligence,” Aguano said. “He’s probably one of the brightest guys in our room knowing what to do in our scheme, the pass game, protections.”
“(Aguano) is a really great coach,” said Hart. “He’s taught me a lot about just learning fronts, learning schemes, learning defenses in general. When you come in from high school, you know how to play running back, but you don’t realize how much of the mental aspect there is to it. Him breaking down film, going over defenses, how coverages affect defenses, even on pass pro, it really adds something to your game.”
This past May, Hart and fellow freshman walk-on defensive lineman B.J. Green—who led the team in sacks—were rewarded by being placed on scholarship. Even though Hart “low key” knew it was coming, the significance of the honor was not lost on him.
“It was really nice to see all my hard work finally get recognized,” he said. “Thanks to Coach Herm, Coach Aguano, and all those guys on the staff putting that trust in me.”
It may not have been a debut season that lit up the stat sheet, but Hart hopes that his promising trajectory can serve as an example for others.
“For everybody that got put on and everybody that’s trying to be put on, don’t let that walk-on title define you,” said Hart. “If you come in with a mindset that you can work, you can put in the work, and that you can do it, the sky is the limit.”
At 210 pounds, Hart adds a power dimension to the backfield. He also provides a welcome infusion of energy to the room.
“He brings a different kind of character to it,” said fullback Case Hatch. “And if you speak to him, you know, he’s a character. He’s awesome to be around. It’s that young energy he brings to the team.”
“This is a very serious thing we do daily,” Hart said. “Being able to let go, let loose, have fun a little is always good.”
Heading into his second fall camp with the team, Hart is buoyed by the stability of a scholarship and armed with a year of experience. But his overall approach has not changed much.
“It was the same,” said Hart. “I feel like I have a little more knowledge of the game and being able to read stuff. I think I’m able to play faster with that.”
He’s also able to help mentor a newcomer like White with things ranging from answering football questions to knowing when the best time to fit in a nap during the fall camp schedule. It’s symbolic of the supportive dynamic in the running backs room, even as they are competing for carries.
“It’s a good competition. It’s nothing like hate between any of us,” Hart said. “It’s like everybody is helping each other trying to get that one spot.”
After last season, Glenn Thomas took over as ASU’s offensive coordinator. Valladay and Ngata are expected to carry the majority of the load early on, but with Thomas’ run-heavy attack, the team knows quality depth at running back will be important.
“That third and fourth back have to be ready, especially if someone goes down,” Aguano said. “I’m excited for him to show what he can do. He’s gotten a little bigger, about 210 pounds now. I think he can handle a load.”
Thomas feels that whether it’s on offense, special teams, or the sidelines, Hart is making the most of his chance.
“I think he can definitely have an impact,” Thomas said. “To his credit he earned a scholarship this spring. That just speaks to what he brings to the table. Another guy with a great personality. He’s very conscientious, really trying to learn. And he takes advantage of when he’s in there he’s really doing a good job. Obviously he’s a bigger back so he’s running hard, hard to tackle. When he’s not in there you can tell, he’s over there he’s getting mental reps. He’s really focusing on what’s going on.”
There are new formations, ideologies, routes, and wrinkles in Thomas’ offense. But some things remain unchanged when it comes to the ground game.
“Outside zone is the same as outside zone. Inside zone and power are all the same,” Hart said. And perhaps most importantly to a running back, “(Thomas) still loves to give us the ball, which is great.”
The Devils are going to run this fall. A lot. And George Hart III figures to get some of those attempts. But the greatest measure of his impact may not come in yards or touchdowns. Whether as a runner, special teamer, mentor, or example of what hard work can accomplish, the Sun Devils figure to be better with Hart in the program.
“I would be very surprised if he’s not in there,” Thomas said. “He’s gonna make a positive contribution.”
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