TALE OF TWO TIGERS - The Explorer: Import

TALE OF TWO TIGERS

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Posted: Tuesday, August 28, 2001 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:46 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

The similarities between Dusty Alexander and Clay Hardt seem to end at their Marana High School diplomas.

While both are University of Arizona football players, Alexander, whose gentle disposition is countered by a body built like a bull's, and Hardt, who is lean and perpetually wired, find themselves on opposite sides of the football.

Their personalities would likely land on the extremes of a PH test. Success in wrestling and football at Marana High School propelled both of them into college athletics but at different velocities and directions. Alexander walked onto the UA football team last fall with no scholarship, his only guarantee was a tryout. By then he was already in his fourth year of college. He made the cut but sat third string on the defensive line's depth chart.

Hardt's credits would argue that he's a junior at UA, but since he's got three years of eligibility remaining he's called a sophomore. During his senior year at Marana High School, Hardt was heavily recruited by several Pacific 10 conference schools.

After watching UA beat the University of Miami in the Aloha Bowl, Hardt committed to the Wildcats and received a full scholarship.

As standouts at Marana, they did everything. Playing both defense and offense, Alexander blocked the rushers and rushed the passer while Hardt ran for more than 1,000 yards a season and snagged interceptions.

"They were great kids to coach," said Marty Honea, former Marana High School football coach. "Clay is an extreme lover of the game and Dusty is a real hard worker."

But to date that's meant little at the university where neither is a starter and Alexander has yet to see any playing time. For Alexander, this season is his last chance to play college football.

"I'm glad this is my last year of football cause I'm finishing it. I just want to finish and say 'I went my hardest, I didn't have any regrets,'" Alexander said.

For Hardt, the majority of his college playing years await him and this is his chance to start strutting.

Sitting on bleachers above the north endzone at Arizona Stadium, Hardt signed posters and towels along with the rest of the UA football team before a public scrimmage Aug. 18.

Fans went from player to player, chatting. Children's jaws dropped with awe and their heads crooked back to take in the athletes that were five or six times their own size. Hardt smiled at each of them with a set of blue teeth that looked stained by Kool Aid -- his mouthpiece in place even before his pads.

"You know, Chuck Cecil is coaching the Titans," one of the fans said. "But your Mom says Tennessee is too far away."

Again smiling his blue set, Hardt looked down and shook his head. "No,"he said. Tennessee isn't too far away.

Chuck Cecil, a former UA free safety and NFL all-star, made his name through his hard-hitting play and was sometimes called for spearing other players, attracting fines and suspensions from the league.

"He had a constant motor on the field. That's how I want to play," Hardt said.

Cecil is who Hardt most resembles due to his constant alertness and desire for the ball, UA Defensive Coordinator Larry MacDuff said. Intensity is one of Hardt's best assets on the field, he said.

"He seems to be around the ball a lot, that's a good quality for a safety," MacDuff said.

The free safety is charged with breaking up passes, stopping rushers and at all costs making sure the football never gets past him. Aggressiveness is a vital trait, MacDuff said. But too much of a good thing can be bad.

"At times his aggressiveness has gotten him in trouble," he said.

During the Aug. 17 scrimmage, on the very first set of downs Hardt was in at free safety. On the third play, all the offense's receivers were covered and the quarterbacked started scrambling. Pushed out of the pocket by oncoming linebackers, the quarterback threw down the middle to a receiver cutting across midfield.

Hardt had been waiting. Ten yards from the line of scrimmage he jumped and snagged the pass, then charged 15 yards for a touchdown.

Following the practice's first interception, Hardt didn't strut. There was no bragging loud enough for it to be picked up from the sidelines. And it's a good thing he didn't.

The very next play he over-committed on one side of the field when running back Clarence Farmer was heading toward the other. Farmer, who'd already hit his stride, left Hardt tripping in his wake as he completed a 65-yard touchdown run.

The second example demonstrates one of the reasons Hardt is backing up Jarvis Johnson, the first string free safety, MacDuff said, even though Hardt started six games last year at that position. One of the other reasons is that Johnson has a year's more experience on the team and started the other five games last year. That fierce competition will only make each player better and strengthen the position, MacDuff added.

"We're just always battling it out," Hardt said.

Not getting the starting job this year shouldn't discourage Hardt though, MacDuff said.

"Clay's got plenty of time," he said.

Time to work on footwork, instincts and strength. What he's already got is the attitude and leadership skills, both coaches, Honea and MacDuff, said.

When Hardt's on the field, his teammates can't miss his presence.

"He's just a caged animal," Honea said. "Just sitting here thinking about it I'm getting goose bumps."

In high school, Hardt was able to dominate on both sides of the ball and in multiple sports. His athleticism and fierce playing style drove his success, Honea said. Players on the team responded well to his antics, like when he dyed his hair the school colors.

And then there was his play.

At the high school level, few players could turn a tackle into the equivalent of a head-on auto accident, but Hardt was one of them.

"I live to watch big hits, they're better than touchdowns," Honea said.

But big hits were only part of what made Hardt great at Marana. In a game his senior year against Flowing Wells Hardt rushed for 280 yards and four touchdowns, threw two passes, caught a pass, intercepted a pass, made 10 tackles, and ran back a punt and a kickoff.

In fact, his high school offensive numbers were far greater than his defensive stats, but it was his intensity and hitting ability that attracted the attention of UA recruiters.

So when Hardt arrived at the UA, much was expected from him, Hardt said. He wasn't sure what everyone else was predicting, but he also didn't care. Hardt said he's designated himself his biggest critic and driving force to be successful at the university.

But his own victories at the UA didn't begin with his arrival and haven't really started yet. After practicing with the football team during summer 1999 before his freshman year, he and several other new arrivals didn't find holes in the roster waiting for them.

But there were plenty of seats on the bench, Hardt said.

When he signed with the UA, Hardt said, he didn't think red-shirting, taking a year off that does not remove any eligibility, was even going to be an option. And he thought about fighting it, but only for a little while.

"I could've played and just wasted a year playing special teams," Hardt said.

"At first it's hard to deal with, it's like everywhere everybody comes from they're the man. But (by red-shirting) you get so much time to adapt to college, to the training, the schedule."

While in high school, Hardt wrestled in the 171 pound weight class and worked hard to keep his weight down.In that class he dominated, Honea said, winning consecutive 4A state championships. But Hardt's domination in wrestling limited him on the football field since he would keep his muscle mass low so not to go up a weight class.

Since there was less muscle, Hardt couldn't hit as hard, Honea said. During his red-shirt year, Hardt worked hard on his upper body, increasing his weight to 192 pounds. The buildup resulted in more strength and more of him to throw into a hit, Honea said.

Hardt's on-field energy and fidgeting are slightly subdued when off as he works on a degree in geography. But unless something dramatic happens, such as an injury, his current course of study may only serve to make Hardt a more interesting conversationalist when the subject turns to maps.

His focus is football which he hopes will lead him to the NFL. Distractions from his two main goals, to play professional football and graduate, are presented as few and far between.

His closest brush with scandal came during the first week of his freshman year when he was present during the theft of about $20 from the university's student identification card office.

The University of Arizona Police Department never considered Hardt a suspect in the theft.

While that occurrence was only a blip on the screen for the UA football program, Hardt said other players sometimes diverge from acceptable activities.

"(Other players) make stupid decisions and end up getting kicked out of school. They couldn't handle the lifestyle," he said.

But for this year's team, Hardt said it hasn't been a problem.

"We're so busy, there's not really (a problem). Our team's real smart."

As for him?

"I try to stay out of trouble," he said.

Staying out of trouble seems remarkable for a player with as edgy and free-wheeling of a personality as Hardt's.

As a starter or potential starter and a highly regarded recruit, everything Hardt does is scrutinized, by his coaches, the school, and especially the press.

Alexander hasn't attracted anything close to that level of attention. The only mention as a UA football player that he's received from the county's two daily newspapers was due to a fight he got into with an offensive lineman last year at Camp Cochise.

Even his high school career, though nearly as stellar as Hardt's -- recognized as an all region offensive and defensive lineman (one of only two big-school football players in the state to be recognized for their play on both sides of the ball), named to the 4A all-state football team as a defensive lineman, and winning the 4A heavyweight state wrestling championship his senior year -- didn't attract much attention.

In a search of the Arizona Daily Star's news archive, Alexander's name comes up in 8 stories. Hardt's name appears in 88 stories.

Only one school recruited Alexander his senior year of high school, Arizona Western Community College in Yuma, which offered him a scholarship to play defense.

Though Alexander was disappointed in the lack of interest from other colleges, he was satisfied to be offered a college scholarship for playing football.

"Basically, football, I always used it as a means to get an education," Alexander said.

That doesn't mean football is not a priority. After two years playing defensive line for Arizona Western, Alexander transferred to the UA. He had hoped to get a scholarship, and some recognition for his stellar play at AW. But again, he got little interest. The only thing the UA coaches offered him was a tryout for the team as a walk-on.

That was good enough. He applied to the UA in hopes of finishing his degree in child psychology so he could move on to graduate school.

"You can't do anything with a bachelor's in psychology," Alexander said. While the point of going to the university was a degree, the chance to play NCAA Division 1 football was not far down on the list of priorities.

To prepare, he'd dropped more than 20 pounds to get himself below 300. His speed improved and he made the team as a defensive lineman.

But he was at the bottom of the totem pole, way down on the depth chart and struggling to make the travel team (though the UA football team has as much as 100 players, only the top 60 are taken on road trips).

Nevertheless, Alexander said he was convinced he'd get playing time. For a while it looked like he was right, playing well enough that his coaches told Alexander he'd likely play in the second half against San Diego State last year.

During a practice the week before, those hopes to play in his first big-time college football game were dashed when he suffered a serious concussion, making his head feel like a scrambled yolk, he said.

He was so disoriented from the brain injury that his thoughts emerged slowly from his mouth for a while afterward, he said.

"It feels like you're retarded," Alexander said. "Seriously, like you're stupid. I had straight Cs my first semester (at the UA)."

He hadn't had grades that poor during college, he said. The injury cost him more than his grade point average, he lost a season of football which for a walk-on can be devastating.

He also lost a year of eligibility, but since he only intended to play two seasons that loss meant little, he said.

Alexander set his sights on getting himself ready for this year and didn't worry much about the time lost. For him, football is fun but it's not the focus. With former head coach Dick Tomey's exit in December a host of new faces were brought into the football program's front offices.

One staff position that didn't change was that of offensive line coach Charles Dickey, who's now Alexander's coach.

After spring practices, the coaching staff decided to use Alexander's bulk on the offensive line this season. For Alexander, there was a lot more learning to do.

"In the beginning, I was drowning and I thought I was never going to get it. But coaching staff here has been good and the players help you a lot," Alexander said. "As long as I get my plays down here I guarantee I'll be OK."

But it's also a lot more to think about than when he was on the defensive line, not to mention more pressure.

"That's what I loved about defense. If one person screwed up you could still make it up by making the play. But if the offense screws up, one person can ruin the whole play," he said.

The job of a defensive lineman is to clog holes that runners can use to gain yardage and to get by their blockers to stop the play before the ball leaves the backfield.

Offensive lineman, depending on the play, must create those holes, shift their blocking depending on where the runner or quarterback is going and give the quarterback plenty of time to throw the ball.

Dickey said Alexander's footwork and speed are getting better the more he works with the offensive line.

"He's as hard a worker as I've ever had. He reaches out to do the best he can," Honea said.

Linemen are often the forgotten players on a football team, but Alexander says that doesn't bother him. Nor does his designation as a walk-on. Instead, he embraces it.

"I'm getting a whole new perspective of being a walk-on and, you know, having to fight my way up. I don't know how it is for other people who are just talented enough to get right in, they don't know the other side of the story, the other side of the tracks," he said. "For some people it's good to know and some people, they don't need to know. It's just good for awareness, I think. I'm glad I got to see both sides."

And while some players fear not getting playing time, or worse, getting cut, Alexander said the pressure provides him the desire to work harder.

"I'm not secure, you know what I mean? I'm not getting paid (through a scholarship) so I have to keep proving myself," he said.

Alexander didn't need to try out again this year, but he said his status on the UA football team only matters to other students if he's on scholarship.

"They don't understand that walk-ons contribute as much as the regulars. Being a walk-on, it helps me prove something," Alexander said.

Within the team, walk-ons are brought in as every other player and treated equally among the ranks, he said.

Where his lack of a scholarship has the greatest effect is on the expense of gas as he commutes from his home in Marana nearly everyday. And school expenses. He's looking for a graduate school that has a focus aligned with the Christian faith, he said. Charity work has made up a majority of his career training so far and his place on the UA football team has helped him be more successful as a volunteer.

"I like doing volunteer work and then as long as I'm a football player at Division 1 kids see that and they're more apt to listen to you and hear your message rather than if you were just some normal person," Alexander said.

"As long as I'm here I want to get as much as I can, help as much as I can in the community because I figure once I'm done, until I do something else that's extraordinary, I can affect kids more now."

Alexander's goals for this season are not specific in terms of statistics or awards. Rather, he wants to play this season out and finish his football career happy with his accomplishments.

And he'll get his chance to make up for last season's injury in the first game of this season, Aug. 30 against San Diego State.

Both players, though on different tracks, are preparing for a season of glory this year, Hardt hoping this is his breakout year in his quest to become one of the best safetys to have ever played for the Wildcats, and Alexander, hoping he gets to play as a Wildcat.

There have been other star athletes from Marana, and its sister school Mountain View, that have played for the UA, most notably Kevin Schmidtke, who set records for career rushing yards at Mountain View and played five years for the Wildcats. But most have only played one or two years, nearly all as walk-ons.

Hardt is following in Schmidtke's footsteps, Alexander in those of all the rest.

But there is more in common between the two than the high school they attended. Both live at home, commuting back and forth to school, and both have close ties to their community.

Hardt lives in his Mom's house where they rent out two rooms. Two of the house's other residents are his pit bulls, Diamond and Fury.

While it's a long commute, especially when practices start at 6:30 a.m., they enjoy continuing to live in Marana.

Hardt said he hears from his neighbors and old high school friends all the time, all of them pulling for him to make it big, all the way to the NFL, which will be a feat no one else from the community has achieved.

Alexander said he'd like to return to Marana after he receives his graduate degree, hoping to work as a counselor.

While Hardt doesn't make the same commitment, he said Marana and his friends here are always going to be important to him.

"They'll always be real close to me," Hardt said.

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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