BOULDER, Colo. >> Scott Harding’s ability to roll out of the pocket either to his left or right has defenders on edge each week, because they’ve rarely encountered anything quite like this.
Not from a punter, anyway.
The 28-year-old former Australian Rules Football player turned Hawaii punter/receiver/punt returner has brought his unique style to Honolulu, making fourth down especially entertaining.
Harding dances around on punts, waiting for his coverage to sprint downfield. He’ll either scramble to his right to boot the ball or glide over to his left, since he’s just as adept with either foot.
Then there’s always this possibility: The senior faking a punt and running down the field as if he were a midfielder back in Brisbane, playing that other version of football.
“With what he can do, he’s made me think outside the box, made me be very creative,” said Rainbow Warriors special teams coordinator Chris Demarest, whose squad has a bye this weekend before playing at Rice on Oct 4. “He’s such an anomaly.”
Punters who double as punt returners and receivers don’t come around that often. Harding is just as sure-handed as he is sure-footed, which he attributes to his days of playing Aussie Rules football, a sport similar to rugby in which players move the ball down the pitch in an attempt to kick the ball between posts.
Harding was originally drafted by the Brisbane Lions in 2005 and played five seasons for the club. After being cut, he was drafted again by Port Adelaide, where he spent one more season before ending his career.
Soon after, some friends suggested Harding get in contact with Hawaii. After all, the Rainbow Warriors already had fellow Aussie Alex Dunnachie punting for them.
“So I sent some film over of me playing Australian football,” said Harding, who began his career at Hawaii in 2011. “I guess they liked what they saw.”
Enough to develop an entire special teams scheme around him after Demarest saw Harding messing around at practice one day, showing off his punting prowess with each foot.
“I asked Scott, ‘Can you do that all the time?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, Coach. I can do whatever you want,'” Demarest said.
Demarest retreated to his office, where he began inventing ways to take advantage of his ambidextrous punter. Opposing teams now have to designate a chunk of practice time to prepare for Harding’s unorthodox style. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound Harding is averaging 42.1 yards this season, simply because his end-over-end punts just keep rolling and rolling, with returners fearful of trying to scoop them up.
“I hear time and time again from other coaches just how many problems Scott causes their punt return team,” Demarest said.
Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre was certainly thinking about Harding before his team’s 21-12 win last weekend over Hawaii. He’s never seen anyone like Harding — a punter with the durability to also return punts.
“That’s a very intriguing story for me to see that,” MacIntyre said.
Harding has a 10.1-yard average on 13 punt returns. He’s also caught 10 passes for 146 yards.
And he doesn’t mind the contact, especially since he’s so well protected in American football.
“The one good thing about here is you can get lit up, but it doesn’t hurt because of all the pads you have on,” said Harding, who was named the Mountain West special teams player of the week for Sept. 15 after setting a career-high in punts (11) and punt returns (7) in a win over Northern Iowa.
Still, he gets hit a bit on punts, because once he leaves the pocket, he’s fair game even if his leg is extended.
“I’m kind of used to it,” said Harding, who has 105 career punts — 35 inside the 20 yard line — along with 92 catches and 76 punt returns. “Sometimes they can beat me up a little bit after the punt, but that’s just part of it.”
His style of punting, though, doesn’t translate to the NFL. In college, players can leave once the ball is snapped. On the pro level, just the wide outs can release.
Still, Demarest believes there’s a spot for Harding on the next level, if some forward-thinking NFL team is willing to find creative ways to use him.
“I’ve been doing this for 27 years, up and down the East Coast, all over the place, and he has the surest hands of any guy I’ve had as a punt returner,” Demarest said. “I hope someone gives him an opportunity, just so he can show what he can do.”