Daniel Hardy posed no problem to Lewis Kidd. The two players faced off in one-on-one drills soon after Hardy transferred to Montana State. Kidd, an offensive lineman, realized Hardy, a defender, only turned the corner and ran the edge. He had no other moves, no other nuances to his game.
“It was super easy,” Kidd remembered thinking. “I get to go against Daniel, this shouldn’t be too hard.”
Hardy hadn’t yet developed. He was quick, but his strength needed to improve.
His athleticism was evident. As was his motor. The Bobcats believed Hardy’s relentlessness, his constant pursuit of quarterbacks, ball carriers and progress along the way, would lead him to standout accomplishments.
“This dude is going to be a freak some day,” Kidd concluded. “And he’s really grown into it and come into that this year. It’s been awesome to see him make plays. He just works his butt off. He’s gotten bigger, stronger, faster. We knew it was coming, it was just a matter of time and it’s awesome to finally see him getting his shot and making plays and helping our defense.”
Hardy was named a first-team all-Big Sky defensive end in the midst of a stellar senior season. He will once again look to lead the No. 8-seeded Bobcats (9-2) as they open the FCS playoffs with a second-round game against UT Martin (10-2) at 2 p.m. Saturday at Bobcat Stadium.
“A lot of hard work has gone into this,” Hardy said of his accolade. “It was nice to celebrate it, but that’s not important right now. We’re on a mission. Got to celebrate that for a good 12 hours, and then you’ve got to put it aside and get back to work.”
Hardy, who’s from Beaverton, Oregon, was an all-state wide receiver and linebacker at Valley Catholic High. But he only played one season of high school football before heading to College of the Siskiyous, a junior college in California.
There, he was disruptive, totaling 66 tackles, 12.5 for loss, with nine sacks to go with three forced fumbles and one recovery. He transferred to MSU the following year. He didn’t have much opportunity as a linebacker in 2018, making most of his impact on special teams.
Hardy also confessed Kidd dominated in their practice matchups. But it forced Hardy to hone his skills. Calling Kidd a “great leader, great motivator,” Hardy said Kidd was one of the key pieces of his development.
In 2019, his role steadily increased. A strong-side linebacker, he appeared in all 15 games. He started four when fellow linebacker Troy Andersen went down with a season-ending injury. Hardy concluded the year with 18 tackles, 5.5 for loss, with 1.5 sacks.
“It’s always nice to see hard work pay off,” Hardy said. “Just hitting it every day, working on the same things over and over and over again because eventually it’s going to hit. As of right now, it’s hitting.”
Then, former Bobcats head coach Jeff Choate departed for Texas. Along with him, his schemes.
When Brent Vigen became Choate’s successor, he implemented a defensive front featuring four linemen and two linebackers. If Hardy was going to see the field, he was likely going to need to make an adjustment.
MSU defensive line coach Shawn Howe said the new staff felt immediately Hardy could flourish at defensive end. But he would need to acclimate himself.
That began with gaining weight. He aimed to eat 5,600 calories a day. He reached 240 pounds, up from 220 in 2019 and 205 when he first arrived at MSU.
Over the months, Vigen noticed Hardy morphing as a player. But his motor remained.
“Just the way he attacks it constantly,” Howe said. “He absolutely has another gear. He brings it every single day, and that’s why he plays the way he plays.”
That translated off the field. Howe noted Hardy set alarms throughout the summer to eat and then fall back asleep to gain weight.
Along with that, he had a voracious appetite for studying film. He constantly asked Howe questions to learn about the position. It seemed Hardy’s hand never went down.
Howe lauded Hardy for his implacable approach on the field. To have that trait, Hardy needed to practice that way, to think that way, to live that way.
Howe, a former coach at USC, has worked with those who have gone on to compete in the NFL. Hardy reminds him of them.
“He’s a true pro in every sense of the word,” Howe said. “He’s great for our group because he’s a leader by example. He plays his absolute hardest. He’s involved in every single meeting. He never takes a moment off with the group, and it’s almost one of those deals where the guys feel his presence in that room and they know that we can’t let the standard down for one second. He’s unbelievable.”
Hardy’s attitude was required as he grasped the intricacies of the position. There was very little translated from linebacker in the previous scheme to where he was now.
Hardy hadn’t played out of a three-point stance, the fundamental foundation for a defensive lineman. From there, striking his target, reading his keys and training his eyes were all part of a mental process that could lead him to the correct space physically.
The more repetitions, the more comfortable he felt, the faster he could play. From the lessons he gained in the spring, to applying them to summer drills when no one else was around, Hardy’s work ethic prevailed.
“He bought into it wholeheartedly, and I think he saw it as a great opportunity for him,” Vigen said. “To become better, you need to see yourself in that role really succeeding and then just work like crazy.”
Hardy “was probably born to rush the passer,” Vigen said. Hardy pressures opposing tackles to keep up with his speed. If they overadjust, he makes the most of his newfound techniques to act accordingly. He no longer has just one way of trying to win one-on-one matchups.
“He is becoming harder to block each week,” Vigen said with a laugh.
Vigen has noticed the most improvement with Hardy’s run-stopping prowess. He’s more disciplined with clogging up gaps.
The Bobcats line up their defensive ends a little wider out. Thus, they have more space to attack. Hardy does exactly that.
“He’s been awesome,” Howe said. “He’s an athletic nightmare in a matchup for guys to try and block on the run, especially with that little bit of space that we give them. He just totally manipulates guys every week.”
Hardy’s 11 sacks this season ties him for eighth in the FCS and second in the Big Sky. His 17.5 tackles for loss ties him for ninth in the FCS and fifth in the conference.
Hardy’s sack total is 10th on MSU’s single-season record list. Brad Daly (2013) and Jason Hicks (1993) are tied for fifth with 14, Caleb Schreibeis (2012) and Daly (2011) are tied for seventh with 12.5 and Adam Cordeiro (2001) is ninth with 11.5. Mark Fellows (1984) owns the record with 23.
Hardy is just a half of a tackle for loss outside of the top 10. But he’s just three away from tying Daly (2013) and Mac Bignell (2015) for fourth. Fellows (1984) is the leader with 30.
Vigen said Hardy’s pass-rushing has been “exceptional.”
“He’s grown a lot from just seeing his keys, playing fast, understanding backfield sets, just becoming a student of the game,” MSU defensive coordinator Freddie Banks said. “Obviously his athletic ability helps that a lot. He’s been blessed with some gifts that not all of us have.”
Hardy’s dedication to special teams hasn’t stopped, though. He’s showcased his enthusiasm for making an impact any chance he has with booming hits on kickoffs.
Vigen believes Hardy has been MSU’s best on kickoffs. He leads the team with three tackles which have pinned opponents inside the 20 on punts or the 25 on kickoffs.
Vigen said Hardy’s selflessness will leave a lasting impact on the program. Younger players see his willingness to toil away at a new position while still remaining committed to special teams and may want to emulate him.
“He’s a guy that understands each rep he gets,” Vigen added, “whether it’s a run or pass, is so critical and he never stops.”
Hardy’s career has come full circle. Kidd, who moved to left tackle during the offseason, said Hardy would “kick my butt” in practice as he made his own positional adjustment. Those battles in practice forced Kidd to become better.
MSU freshman tackle Rush Reimer swiftly learned a lesson when he began practicing against Hardy.
“You for sure can’t take plays off,” he said.
Kidd added Hardy is a “monster.” He gave him credit for the career-long effort needed to reach this point.
The Bobcats may play their final game of the season this week, but Hardy laughed at the thought of that. He plans for his team to keep playing. He doesn’t intend on letting up any time soon.