When the Bears kick off the regular season Sept. 8, it will mark 1,009 days – almost three years – since Brandon Hardin last played in a regular-season football game.
But the 2012 third-round pick needs to prove himself to solidify his roster spot after the past two years were derailed by injuries.
“Totally, 100 percent healthy now,” Hardin said with the smile and confidence of someone who has been asked, “How’s your health?” several dozen times since coming to training camp.
Last preseason, Hardin was carted off the field on a stretcher during a game after going low to tackle Redskins tight end Logan Paulsen. The sight was scary, but much more so than the diagnosis.
“I think the injury last year was a 4-to-6 week injury, and after that, I was really healthy,” Hardin said. The Bears placed him on injured reserve, setting up what amounted to a redshirt year, and his second season in a row without football.
Before his senior year at Oregon State, Hardin suffered a shoulder injury that required season-ending surgery in August 2011.
Beavers defensive coordinator Mark Banker described the incident as if it happened yesterday.
“It was our sixth practice, and kind of a freak thing. Our receiver came up from behind him as he was going up for a fade and heading for an interception,” Banker said. “The guy kind of grabbed both his arms and pulled [them] down to the side. He sat out practice with stiffness and soreness, returned the next morning and jammed a receiver inside on a crossing route and we looked at the shoulder again.
“For him, as you can imagine, he was devastated.”
Hardin had high expectations heading into his senior year after graduating in June. As a junior, he started 12 games at cornerback and made 63 tackles and forced three fumbles. He recovered to play in the East-West Shrine Game in January, when Hardin got to prove to scouts he had recovered from the shoulder surgery, helping his draft stock.
Fast forward to 2013, and Hardin is in a competition to make the roster. Major Wright and Chris Conte are the Bears’ starting safeties. Craig Steltz returns for his sixth season as a reserve. Anthony Walters, Tom Zbikowski, Tom Nelson and Cyhl Quarles are also competing. Hardin has generally lined up next to Steltz with the second-team defense.
Staying healthy is one way to ensure a chance at a roster spot, but all eyes will be on Hardin the first time he has a chance to make a hit, as his last in-game tackle ended with him on a stretcher. He’s not concerned, though.
“No hesitation there. I’ve seen the hit a lot and kind of judged how I approached the hit,” he said. “Obviously, I won’t be doing that again, but it won’t take away from my aggressiveness and style of hitting. I really like to get in there and hit someone. I can’t let that change my attitude.”
And staying off the stretcher will also give his family some relief.
“They joke around a little bit, saying ‘just don’t do that again to us.’ There is a dramatic factor when someone gets carted off the field, for any family member,” Hardin said. “Definitely not looking to be on a cart or stretcher any time soon.”
Hardin brings versatility to the back end with his experience at corner, allowing him to run with receivers. “Having corner footwork is really something special,” he said. “If I can take the footwork and the ability that I had at Oregon State and apply it here, I know I can be a really great safety.”
Banker took advantage of Hardin’s physicality and moved him around, using him as an outside linebacker – or an in-the-box safety – when the ball was on the short side of the hash. What the Beavers’ defense lost in 2011 is something a healthy Hardin can bring to the Bears’ defense down the line.
“Losing [Hardin], we lost quite a bit in our defense,” Banker said. “We lost a pass defender, but also a run defender by virtue of the fact the kid is 6-3, 220 pounds.”
Bears defensive backs coach Jon Hoke is one of two holdovers from Lovie Smith’s staff, so he got to work with Hardin last offseason before his injury.
“He’s having a great start to camp,” Hoke said of Hardin. “He’s doing a good job, he’s mentally in-tune. We can see improvement with him every day. We’re very encouraged with what we see right now.”
Hardin said he has focused on his coverage skills within the Bears’ zone defense, coming from a school where he played mainly press-man.
“My man footwork at press corner is good enough to cover tight ends here and cover wide receivers, but transitioning back to the middle of the field and playing safety, it’s obviously a different vantage point,” he explained. “That’s really been the emphasis [in training camp] in getting comfortable with that.”
Going back to Hardin’s 2012 scouting report, the intangibles are certainly there, and Banker knows that won’t ever be an issue with his former pupil.
“He’s a very conscientious person in general,” Banker said. “Work-ethic wise, he’s been one of those guys that’s always in the weight room. He’s a self starter and that’s continued.
“The work ethic is not going to hold him back, but he knows it will take talent and ability to make the club.”
This summer sets up a completely different situation and mindset for Hardin compared to his rookie training camp. He is well aware of what is at stake, as he aims to be on the field for his first meaningful game since December 4, 2010.
“I’ve realized, with the time down, it gives you perspective. You get to realize how special an opportunity this is,” Hardin said. “It would be a shame for me to waste this opportunity to make this team, to contribute toward the team. I’m really, really hungry to go out and help this team.”
• Shaw Media's columnist Tom Musick contributed to this story.