As the Heartland CollegIate Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Week for the second week in three, Devonte Hardiman isn’t trembling at the monumental challenge which awaits Saturday.
Fresh from making game-highs of eight solo tackles, 12 altogether and three sacks in Hanover College’s regular-season-ending 27-21 win over visiting Franklin in the 89th annual “Victory Bell Game, the Princeton Community-bred freshman and fellow Panthers will open NCAA Division III play Saturday at unbeaten and No. 2-ranked Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio.
While Hanover has won nine straight games since a September 7 season-opening 45-31 loss to Centre, the Purple Raiders own a 10-0 record that lives up to their tradition. Not only are they about to make a 31st appearance in the Division III playoffs that began in 1973, they’ve reached the national final 21 times and come away with six national championships, most recently in 2017. They fell 24-16 to Mary Hardin-Baylor in the 2018 final.
“Mount Union’s offensive and defensive linemen are big and fast, but we love the competition. If we compete and play like we can, play our best football, anything can happen on a given day,” said the 18-year-old Hardiman, who as a freshman has stepped into prime time as a defensive end.
Heartland champions a second straight year, and unbeaten in the conference for the first time since 2003, the Panthers seek to rise from last year’s 52-0 playoff-opening loss to North Central in Chicago suburban Naperville, Ill. which capped a 7-4 season.
Ironically, if they spring an upset Saturday, they’ll advance to a second-round game against the North Central-Wabash victor.
Hardiman’s college career-high numbers vs. Franklin raised his season numbers to 31 total tackles including 22 solos, 9.5 sacks and 12 tackles for losses. The latter two numbers are Hanover season-highs. His 31 total stops stand seventh on the team, although he did not play vs. Centre and didn’t become a starter until November 9 at Rose-Hulman.
He also has recovered two fumbles and forced another.
“I owe so much to my teammates,” said the brother of 2013-14 Gibson County Male Athlete of the Year Deon Hardiman, Maleek Hardiman, and current wide receiver and defensive back Dominic Hardiman. He’s also the cousin of running back Darrion Madison, who rebounded from injuries and helped the Tigers reach the recent 3A sectional final vs. Vincennes Lincoln.
“Carson Plessinger, who plays some defensive end although he’s listed as a linebacker, often takes on the offensive end who’s trying to block me. That gives me more room to do what I can do, and I try to use my quickness and spin moves to get into the offensive backfield.
“Our whole defensive line helps me a lot.”
Playing beyond his 5-foot-10, 205-pound frame, Hardiman has meshed for a team that includes other southwestern Indiana high school grads.
Senior defensive back Kornell Dash, from Evansville Reitz, is second among Panthers with 55 tackles, including 37 solos. Dash’s total are topped only by junior linebacker Kyle Treber, former Mishawaka Penn standout who has made 46 solo tackles and figured in 77 altogether. Plessinger’s 48 total steps are fourth on the team; Dakota Manion, senior linebacker from West Lafayette and Lafayette Harrison High, has matched Gage’s 55 hits.
The Panthers’ offense hubs around an Evansville North grad. Junior running back Shawn Coane, by rushing 104 yards and 2 touchdowns vs. Franklin, set Hanover career records of 3,031 rushing yards and 19 rushing touchdowns while taking handoffs and pitches from junior quarterback Noah Wezensky, from Fort Wayne Bishop Luers.
Thus the future looks bright for the team coached by Matt Theobald, whose defensive coordinator Aarik Gault lettered four times for Mount Union including two national championship years, and also gained a championship ring as assistant coach in 2008.
“We expect to be back in the playoffs the next three years. This year’s playoff experience will be a great foundation for us.”