ATLANTA -- With so many key college football games this season coming down to whether the kicker can make a clutch field goal, the search is on for a consistent, strong leg to depend on. Marist School coach Alan Chadwick knows all too well just how valuable having a weapon on special teams can be, as he sent Justin Moore to Georgia Tech two years ago and will now graduate Austin Hardin to Florida.
Hardin, a Georgia native, moved to South America in eighth grade to play soccer, and he planned to play soccer in college. But his friends played football, and one day when he was 15 he got his dad out on the field and put a football down on a tee.
Hardin hit a 60-yard field goal, and right there his dad said Austin was going to do football, and they never looked back.
Hardin has made 16 of 26 field goal attempts over the past two years at Marist, with eight of those misses being over 50 yards. He had 83 of his 112 kickoffs go for touchbacks.
"Having Austin has been a luxury you do not get used to at the high school level," Chadwick said. "The ability to kick it into the end zone every single time on kickoffs and having the confidence to line up on offense from 40 yards out and know you have a great chance of putting points on the board is immeasurable as a head coach."
Taking pressure off the War Eagles, whether it's with key kickoffs to start the half or clutch field goals at the end of the half or the end of the ballgame, Hardin has been able to come through when Marist has needed him most. Chadwick thinks his kicker is at his best when his team needs him the most.
"Austin has been in numerous pressure situations and is the type of competitive athlete that thrives under those conditions," Chadwick said.
The Marist kicker became a household name in recruiting circles after a rivalry game against Southwest DeKalb last season.
"We were tied 14-14 with less than a minute left in the game," Hardin said. "I hit a 59-yard field goal to win the game, and that kind of jump-started my recruitment."
Hardin relishes the chance to line up with the game on the line, something he feels gives him a psychological advantage over many kickers in college today.
"On the sideline, I tend to go into my own zone, and as soon as I step on the field, everything else just goes away," Hardin said. "I tend to do better under pressure. What makes a good kicker is looking forward to opportunities like that instead of shying away."
After his game-winning kick last fall, schools started to show interest in Hardin, but held off on offering.
"They thought that kick was a fluke," Hardin said. "Then I went to the Kohl's Kicking Camp and was awarded the No. 1 kicker there and ESPN ranked me the No. 1 kicker in the country. After that, when schools like Auburn, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Florida got me on campus, they offered."
Georgia recruited Hardin but chose to offer Marshall Morgan instead. With the Bulldogs taking back-to-back kickers from Florida in Blair Walsh and Morgan, and the Gators having success with Chas Henry and now Hardin, the two rivals are once again swapping kickers from their respective home states.
"I heard Morgan was a good kicker and I wish him the best of luck at Georgia," Hardin said. "All my friends give me a hard time for going to Florida, just as I am sure Morgan's friends give him a hard time going to Georgia. It should be fun kicking against each other in the future. Kicking a 50-plus yard field goal to win the game against Georgia in Jacksonville is my dream college scenario, just like the game-winner against Southwest DeKalb was a dream scenario in high school."
Hardin has bought into what Florida coach Will Muschamp is building in Gainesville, committing to the Gators back in June.
"They are always going to have great talent in their program, and when Coach Muschamp talked about instilling discipline and doing things the right way, I wanted to be a part of that," Hardin said.
The No. 1 kicker in the country, Hardin was announced as an Under Armour All-American selection Thursday in front of his family, classmates and coaches. He was presented with his game jerseys as part of the 80-stop American Family Insurance Presents the Under Armour All-America Game selection tour.
"It is a great honor and I am very excited to be around the top players in the country," Hardin said. "I look forward to playing in the game. From the beginning I told my dad it was my goal to be the No. 1 kicker in the country and kick in the All-America Game."
Hardin has been to Florida's season opener as well as games against Alabama and Florida State this year. The kicker did his best to help the Gators recruit other top targets while on campus, with many of those same prospects set to play in the Under Armour game.
"Marcus Maye, Colin Thompson, Latroy Pittman, Brian Poole are all commits that will be there, and Nelson Agholor, who might as well be a commitment," Hardin said. "I know Avery Young had a good time when I was down for the Florida State game, so hopefully we can get him too. I hope to get [to] make a few recruiting pitches to others, as well."
The fifth annual Under Armour All-American Game is set to take place Jan. 5 at Tropicana Field and will be broadcast live on ESPN. Hardin hopes to make an impact in his first of many nationally televised games.
"If I get the chance to win the Under Armour Game, I will be excited," Hardin said.
Kipp Adams has covered University of Georgia recruiting since 2006. He can be reached at KippAdamsESPN@gmail.com or on Twitter @KippLAdams.