When Miami’s Heath Harding lines up at cornerback against Presbyterian Sept. 5, he’ll be in a familiar role with familiar surroundings. Such was not the case two years ago.
Harding was just a freshman out of Dayton Christian High School back then. After playing offense during his entire prep career, Miami coaches decided to move him on to defense. Alakazam!!! You’re a cornerback.
That sort of thing can happen as team needs intersect with individual skills. Opportunity was actually knocking at the door, but when you are a freshman who never played defense before, you’re not sure who/what is knocking at the door. Certainly, his first fall camp provided some significant anxieties.
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Three games into the 2013 season, Harding got his first start. It happened to be against Cincinnati – a long-time rival against whom Miami has struggled in recent years. Harding came through with seven tackles and an interception as the MU defense kept Cincinnati off the scoreboard until 4:55 left in the contest. The Bearcats eventually won, 14-0, handing Miami the its third defeat in what would become a winless season.
Asked who were some of the toughest challenges for him in his freshman season at the corner, Harding noted one of the Bearcats was among his tougher assignments.
“I had to defend (Mekale McKay) my first start. That was tough. He was long and lengthy. … Also Buffalo had a really good receiver.” (Actually, both Alex Neutz and Fred Lee had big years for UB in 2014).
All things considered, Harding had a decent season, especially for a freshman who never played defense before. He totaled 54 tackles, including 40 solo stops and 3.0 TFL. He also forced two fumbles and collected three interceptions.
“I (got) the privilege and honor to start for a great university,” Harding said. “I must have been doing something right, but I was just happy to help my teammates out.”
While there was no joy in the Miami win column that year, Harding benefited from his experience. “(It’s) like with anything. Once you start getting the hang of it, your confidence (increases) and you can play a lot better. So, as the year went along, I just felt more comfortable with what I was doing and believed in what I was doing.”
Midway through the 2013 campaign, head coach Don Treadwell was dismissed. The school hired Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin as the new head coach in early December, and he brought in a new staff. Big changes were in the offing!
Among the many changes was a new spot for Harding. Former Miami basketball player Quinten Rollins had decided to give football a try. He showed so much potential in spring and fall practices that he was eventually moved into a cornerback spot. Harding, meanwhile, moved to safety.
It turned out to be a pretty good year for both players, who were roommates for part of Miami’s 2014 fall camp.
All Rollins, a four-year MU basketball player, did in his first season of college football was play well enough to become MAC Defensive Player of the Year. He was then drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the second round of the NFL draft.
Harding finished 2014 with a team-high 98 tackles (74 solo). He (2) and Rollins (7) accounted for 9 of Miami’s 11 interceptions on the campaign.
“Last year, I was a different player. I was older and more mature,” Harding said. “I already had the confidence from the freshman year. I felt more comfortable playing safety, but if I played corner, I probably would have felt more comfortable there, too.”
According to Harding, playing corner is more about technique. “You’ve got to think a lot more (at safety),” he said. “You’ve got to know where everyone is at on the field, and you’ve got to know the checks. You’ve got to be able to relay the checks. … Now, at the corner, it’s just like listening for my call.”
Both experiences, he feels, will be helpful as he goes back to cornerback duties for 2015. He’s got the knowledge of a safety who knows the system and yet is familiar with the technique needed on the corner where “you can get (every route) in the book.”
He’s also benefitted from his time with Rollins. “It turned into me teaching ‘Q’ (Rollins) different plays and things like that, and at the end of the season, ‘Q’ is teaching me.”
In particular, Harding was impressed with Rollins’ work ethic. “His preparation is just beyond anyone else’s, and that is why he is where he’s at. That’s why he had the season he had.”
In some ways, playing corner is life in the spotlight – particularly against passing teams. He noted Western Kentucky and Cincinnati are two opponents with a pass-heavy attack. The latter could well pit him against McKay (now a senior) again. “It’s going to be interesting to play him again back at corner,” Harding said.
Receiver-defensive back battles can be a high stakes matchup. Harding noted it pits some of the best athletes on the field against each other. “It’s a tossup each play.”
His time at corner and safety have helped Harding build confidence, a key ingredient for defensive backs. This current fall camp, meanwhile, is giving him reps that can build both skills and confidence.
“Our receivers can compete with any receivers in the league, in my opinion. We have great receivers,” he said. “Having those guys push us each day is only going to make us better.”
According to Harding, the RedHawks have been making progress with a relatively young group overall.
“We had a good summer and a good spring. Hopefully, we’ll have a good camp. We’re doing well so far … (plus) we’re older. … We have good vibes going toward the season. That’s when the fun happens, so we’re just itching and crawling trying to get to that.”