Georgia players in the Super Bowl: Mecole Hardman, Chris Conley highlight unconventional paths – The Athletic

By Seth EmersonFeb 12, 2024

It was the Super Bowl postgame in Las Vegas, and the CBS cameras focused in for a minute on Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift with all their glitz and glamour. Then the producers cut to the next visual, which hardly could have been more different: Malik Herring hugging his mother, neither saying anything.

Not a big name. But a champion, and one with his own compelling story.

Herring was one of five Georgia products who played in Sunday’s game. Georgia is a program with 19 first-round NFL Draft picks in the last decade. None of those were on the Kansas City Chiefs or San Francisco 49ers, yet one scored the game-winning touchdown, another starred on special teams, and all suited up on Sunday.

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Draft season is officially upon us, and we will hear much speculation about whether a guy will be a top-10 pick, a first-rounder, a second-day pick, undrafted and so on.

The stories behind the five Georgia players in the Super Bowl, though, show that there are many career paths. Both in college and the pros.

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Mecole Hardman, Chiefs WR

Hardman goes down in history as the man who caught the touchdown pass from Patrick Mahomes to win the game, only the second in Super Bowl history that went to overtime and the first with the both-teams-get-possession format. So it’s immortality for a guy who it feels like has been around forever but is still only 25. He didn’t have a straight line to Sunday night.

Hardman was a five-star prospect out of Elbert County High School, about an hour from Athens. Jeremy Pruitt was visiting Hardman’s mother when he found out Mark Richt had been fired. Kirby Smart made Hardman a priority and signed him.

Speed and athletic ability were his calling card, but a position wasn’t set: Hardman played cornerback his freshman year at Georgia, before moving to receiver the next spring. He caught a touchdown pass in the 2018 national championship and was a dynamic receiver (961 receiving yards, 11 touchdown catches and two rushing touchdowns in the 2017 and 2018 seasons) and punt returner. He turned pro after his junior year, and the Chiefs picked him in the second round.

But while Hardman had his moments, he didn’t emerge as a star on the first go-around with the Chiefs. They let him become a free agent after four years and he signed with the New York Jets. But with the Chiefs missing speed at receiver, they brought him back this year. The second run was a near-disaster, as Hardman’s fumble in the end zone could have cost the Chiefs their divisional round game at Buffalo.

The Chiefs pulled it out, got to the Super Bowl, and Hardman was on the field for the final play. He got his redemption.

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Chris Conley, 49ers WR

Conley was more renowned for his Star Wars fandom — he directed a short film starring Richt and Todd Gurley — that almost overshadowed the fact he was pretty good at football. Conley was Georgia’s leading receiver in both 2013 and 2014, though not with eye-popping numbers, but his NFL combine performance made him a third-round pick by the Chiefs.

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He wouldn’t become a star, playing four years and starting sometimes, topping out at 530 receiving yards his second year. He joined the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2019, played a couple years there, then spent a year with the Houston Texans.

Conley was released during the 2022 season, had a brief stint back with the Chiefs on their practice squad, then spent some time with the Tennessee Titans, playing seven games. He went to San Francisco this past season, released and signed to the practice squad, before elevating to the active roster in December.

And there he was on Sunday, hauling in an 18-yard pass to the sideline, a memorable route and catch for those who watched him at Georgia. But what stood out most was his punt coverage, downing balls and making hits. And showing that a guy can hang around the league if they prove their value in ways other than the usual glamour.

Chris Conley was drafted in the third round of the NFL Draft by Kansas City in 2015. On Sunday, he played against the Chiefs in a 49ers uniform. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

Charlie Woerner, 49ers TE

A sixth-round pick in the 2020 draft, Woerner has quietly gotten snaps for the 49ers as the second tight end. George Kittle gets the catches and acclaim, but Woerner has value as a blocker in Kyle Shanahan’s offense.

All pretty good for someone who only had 34 catches in four years at Georgia; Woerner’s first three years he played alongside Isaac Nauta, who racked up the catches and attention. But Nauta was only a seventh-round pick and is now out of the league. Woerner, because of his blocking, is proving to have the better career.

Robert Beal Jr., 49ers DE

Beal’s story is one Georgia coaches tell younger players who don’t play much.

Beal played so little his first couple years at Georgia he entered the transfer portal after the 2019 regular season. But Smart allowed Beal to stay with the team through the Sugar Bowl, and Beal withdrew from the portal in January.

It still took another year for Beal to see meaningful action — it wasn’t until well into the 2021 season upon Adam Anderson’s suspension and arrest. Beal moved into a first-team role, racked up five sacks in the final six games, including on the final drive of the 2022 national championship game. Beal finished as Georgia’s leading sacker that season.

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After a solid 2022 season, Beal was a fifth-round pick by the 49ers. He spent most of the year on injured reserve, but was activated in November and was in uniform on Sunday night.

Malik Herring, Chiefs DE

Georgia has had 61 players drafted during the Smart era. But you won’t see Herring on that list: After tearing his ACL during practice for the 2021 Senior Bowl, Herring went undrafted.

This was after a nice, but not standout, four years at Georgia, so it would’ve been easy to write Herring off. But this was a guy who was dependable enough that he made Travon Walker — the No. 1 overall pick of the 2022 draft — sit until Herring was gone. The Chiefs saw enough in Herring to pick him up, letting him sit on injured reserve his first year, then elevating him to the roster in 2022. He’s been a rotation player on the line, and on Sunday night he got his second ring, and a long embrace from his mother, caught for posterity by the CBS cameras.

There were 54 former Georgia players who were on NFL rosters at the end of this season. Thirty-nine of them were active by the end of the season, and their ranks include plenty of stars: Matt Stafford, Roquan Smith and the nine who were first-round picks over the past two drafts.

But the final night of the season served as a reminder that a productive career, with all the sweet moments it brings, can come in plenty of ways.

(Photo of Mecole Hardman at Georgia in 2018: Scott Cunningham / Getty Images)

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Seth Emerson is a senior writer for The Athletic covering Georgia and the SEC. Seth joined The Athletic in 2018 from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and also covered the Bulldogs and the SEC for The Albany Herald from 2002-05. Seth also covered South Carolina for The State from 2005-10. Follow Seth on Twitter @SethWEmerson

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