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Penny Hart’s Path to the Pros

By Jim Johnson
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A two-star prospect out of King’s Ridge Christian School in Alpharetta, Georgia, about to enroll at Georgia State, not many people expected Penny Hart to be preparing for the NFL Draft just a few short years later.

"It's going to be an amazing time for me and my family and for all my friends and everybody who supported me through this dream. I can't wait. It's going to be amazing.”
~Penny Hart

A two-star prospect out of King’s Ridge Christian School in Alpharetta, Georgia, about to enroll at Georgia State, not many people expected Penny Hart to be preparing for the NFL Draft just a few short years later.

But Penny Hart did.

“It's been a dream of mine and it's what I've always prepared for, you know, being able to play at this level. So, yeah there were a few bumps along the road that I probably didn't expect, but the end goal was to always be in the NFL, at the highest level,” he stated.

Not cocky by any means, but dripping confidence from day one, it was that mentality, coupled with a willingness to learn from the team’s leadership core, that allowed Hart to rack up over 1,000 yards -- a Sun Belt freshman record -- and earn conference rookie of the year honors during his debut campaign.

He recalled, “I got together with Nick Arbuckle right before I got on campus at Georgia State. He took me under his wing. Robert Davis took me under his wing. They just showed me the way, you know, how to watch film, how to go about my days, being disciplined in what I do. I truly wanted to be great, and they definitely showed me how to do that. From day one that was always the mindset.”

Expectations were sky-high following that banner first year, but a preseason hamstring injury limited him in week one and sidelined him for games two and three, before a broken foot, early in the Panthers’ fourth game, ended his season.

“It was a time for me to learn how to lead in different ways,” the star pass catcher explained. “I got to see a lot of different things while not being on the field. I can come back and help the team see things from a different perspective. It helped me develop as a person and understand that there is life after football. That's where I truly developed the mindset of thinking about what I want to do after football, but for the most part it was more about me learning how to be a better person.”

From the aforementioned injuries to coaching changes to having to adapt to three different quarterbacks during his career, Hart was faced with adversity in many forms during his time in Atlanta.

“I think I definitely learned how to deal with situations that I wasn't necessarily comfortable in,” he stated. “It took awhile for me to learn how to be comfortable, you know, changing positions and learning how to be a boundary receiver, coming off of an injury, different quarterbacks -- just different things like that. I had to learn how to develop and adapt in those different situations to help me to do what I wanted to do. At the end of the day it's just a part of being great and that's the goal. I think I did a good job of being able to adapt through those different situations.”

He certainly did a good enough job to bounce back from his injury plagued sophomore season to become Georgia State’s first receiver ever with two 1,000 yard receiving seasons, and earn first team all-conference honors yet again.

The 2018 season, his redshirt junior year, did not quite go as planned. He still led the team in receiving and added the title of special teams dynamo to his resume, but failed to crack the millenium mark as a receiver for the first full season in his career and posted only three total touchdowns. Even so, in a down year, he managed to earn a third team All-Sun Belt selection for his efforts.

With a year of eligibility left, thanks to a medical redshirt from that tumultuous 2016 season, Hart decided to go ahead and enter the NFL Draft.

“Honestly I felt like it was time for me to go,” the early entrant relayed. “My family, we grew up in a household that believes that Christ is our savior, and I have always been able to understand when it was my thinking and when God was speaking to me. I just definitely felt like it was time for me to go and, you know, I felt like he was telling me it was just time to move on in my life; not necessarily just in football but in every aspect. I feel like if I would have stayed I would have missed out on part of my destiny so I definitely feel like I made the right decision.”

Since making that decision, Hart has been singularly focused on making himself as enticing a prospect as he can possibly be.

“Ever since December I've been in Dallas training at Michael Johnson Performance. It definitely has it's bumps because you're learning how to be out on your own and really learning how to work, how to deal with time, how to be able to manage what you need to do mentally, psychologically, physically, and emotionally. Football is the easy part. There are a lot of different things outside of that that you have to be able to get ready for.”

Hart looked as good as ever in late January during the Senior Bowl. He caught the attention of scouts and analysts alike with that uncanny quickness and crafty route running that allows him to uncover so easily underneath and cause serious problems after the catch. Any concerns that existed after his final season at Georgia State were comfortable assuaged in Mobile.

“That was huge,” Hart proclaimed. “I mean, that has always been a dream to be able to play at the senior bowl. Shout out to Jim Nagy for allowing me to be there, but it’s always been a dream to be able to play there and go out there with some of the best seniors in the country. It definitely felt great.

“It was definitely competitive, but at the same time, at the end of the day, it's just football. In football, if they’re the best you know they are going to play like they're the best and no matter where you play at, if you're good, you're good. It’s going to show and I think a lot of different people, not just myself, made that statement as well. It was just a fun experience being able to be in that fraternity and that 2019 Senior Bowl class.

Next up for Penny Hart as he navigates the draft process? The NFL combined and pro days.

“I’m just working on speed and agility -- everything that every football player has been doing since we were young, so nothing different. Scientifically and technologically, it’s a little bit different as far as techniques, but we've been doing this for so long I'm honestly just more focused on enjoying every step of this process. There are a lot of people who would love to be in my shoes and be in my position so I'm just taking it all in and enjoying everything that comes with it,” he smiled.

There are about a million high school football players every year. Not long ago, Penny Hart was one of them, and a 5’8” receiver at that. Only 337 of those million or so former high school football players were invited to the combine in 2019. Hart was one of them. Suffice it to say, he beat some pretty stacked odds.

He wisely declared, “It's extremely exciting, but if you get too ahead of yourself you'll start to stumble a little bit. I just can't wait for that time (the draft) to happen. It's going to be an amazing time for me and my family and for all my friends and everybody who supported me through this dream. I can't wait. It's going to be amazing.”

The fourth leading receiver in Sun Belt Conference history, despite playing ten fewer games than T.Y. Hilton, Robert Davis, or Jerrel Jernigan -- the three names ahead of him -- Hart is entering the professional ranks at the perfect time.

Slot receivers are becoming marquee assets in the modern NFL, and the former Georgia State standout is the total package, with elite short area agility, devastating acceleration through his cuts and deceleration at the top of his routes, sure hands, and dynamic playmaking ability with the ball in his hands, both after the catch and on special teams.

The ball doesn’t lie. It didn’t when he was the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year. It didn't when he bounced back from injury to lead the league in receiving… again. And it didn’t when he annihilated the Senior Bowl. Penny Hart has proven everything there is to prove. Now, he’s just enjoying the process.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP