RENTON, WA - When it comes to the art of succeeding and blowing expectations out of the water as an underdog, Seahawks third-year wideout Penny Hart could host his own master class.
Coming out of King's Ridge Christian School in Alpharetta, Georgia, Hart was lightly recruited two-star athlete, with Georgia State being the only school to offer him a scholarship. All the 5-foot-8 receiver did upon his arrival on campus was shatter the Panthers' record books as a true freshman, recording 72 receptions for 1,109 yards and eight touchdowns. Two years later, he racked up 74 receptions for 1,121 yards and eight additional touchdowns.
By the time Hart had graduated in 2019, he ranked second in program history in receptions and receiving yards. He also surpassed Robert Davis for the most receiving touchdowns in a career and added a punt return for a touchdown to his resume as a senior. He received an invite to the Senior Bowl and excelled in the all-star event, bolstering his NFL stock with a stellar week in Mobile.
Once again, however, Hart was overlooked and undervalued. Whether it was due to his lack of size, a disappointing pro day workout, playing at a smaller school, or a combination of those factors, he didn't hear his name called during the seven rounds of the 2019 NFL Draft and wound up signing with the Colts as an undrafted free agent.
But despite going undrafted, Hart didn't lack confidence as he began his career. Whether in Indianapolis or with another team, he believed he was destined to make it in the league.
"Ever since I was little, ever since I was five years old when I told my friends I was going to the league, I’ve never doubted myself," Hart said prior to Monday's training camp practice. "I've never thought anything less than, you know, coming through and making plays any time that time is called for me. So I understood that, you know, this is my purpose right now and continuing to play football and, you know, to just continue to serve as well.
But I've always known this ever since coming out of college, going to the Senior Bowl. No matter what happened, I always knew I was going to be in position to continue to do what I wanted to do and continue to fulfill my dreams.”
Things didn't start off well for Hart, who battled injuries throughout his first training camp with the Colts and ultimately received his walking papers in early September. Still recovering from a hamstring injury, he returned home without a practice squad spot, waiting for his next opportunity.
Nearly two months later, that opportunity finally came knocking. The Seahawks brought in the speedy receiver for a workout and with his hamstring fully healed, he impressed the coaching staff enough to land a spot on the practice squad. He remained on the practice roster through the end of the season and signed a future/reserve deal in January.
Viewed by many as a longshot to make the team entering training camp last August, Hart came on strong during the final two weeks, exhibiting outstanding chemistry with quarterback Russell Wilson. Crediting their immediate rapport to their respective competitive natures, he quickly became one of Wilson's favorite targets in practice, particularly during red zone situational drills, while also making a name for himself on special teams.
After initially not making the 53-man roster, the Seahawks elevated Hart to the active roster in place of John Ursua days before the season opener against the Falcons. Though he didn't see much action on offense, he played in 13 regular season games, producing four special teams tackles, one reception for three yards, and one carry for 19 yards.
Looking to build off his first taste of NFL action and carve out a more significant role on offense, Hart shined throughout Seattle's offseason program. In the final practice of minicamp during a 7-on-7 drill, he blew by a pair of defenders on a skinny post route and reeled in a spectacular one-handed, over-the-shoulder touchdown catch from Wilson. Moments later, he scored again on a shallow crossing route.
"You can count on him in a lot of ways," Carroll said of the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Hart after the conclusion of minicamp. "Running his routes right, knowing the offense, [playing] multiple positions, contributing on special teams, his toughness, the attitude that he is is obvious."
During the six weeks between minicamp and the start of training camp, Hart took his first trip down to southern California to join Wilson and other teammates for their annual pre-camp workouts. It provided yet another opportunity for the young receiver to further strengthen his bond with the franchise quarterback.
The work Hart put in on the field during June and July has carried over into his second training camp as a Seahawk. During the team's second practice, with 6-foot-2 defensive back Jordan Miller draped all over him, he high-pointed the football through heavy contact on a downfield throw from Wilson. Even with the referee throwing a flag for defensive holding, he held on through the ground to draw loud cheers from 2,000-plus fans in attendance.
“I really pride myself on any time that a play needs to be made, any time that I can and put myself in a position to make it, then I got to make it and get it done," Hart said of the catch. "You know, it's not too many opportunities that we get. Every second is almost maybe three seconds long or whatever. So if you put that into, you know, put that into play, you've got to do what you got to do every single time.”
Over the first six practices, with their chemistry together seemingly reaching a telepathic phase, Hart has once again been one of Wilson's favorite targets. He has caught a trio of touchdowns during team drills and thus far, new coordinator Shane Waldron's offense looks like the ideal fit for his skill set.
"I love what Shane is doing allowing us to just be able to be ourselves," Hart said. "Most importantly, you know, he tells me against man coverage, 'look, just get open.' And I think that's one thing that everybody in our receiving room specializes in being able to just get open when it's time to get open. He allows us to be able to put our identity into the offense as well as keep working together with Russ to get things done.”
Specifically, referencing how the Rams used their skill players with Waldron involved in calling their offense in recent seasons, Hart appreciates the positional flexibility afforded to him and his teammates within the confines of the scheme. He has been lining up out wide and in the slot and as a former running back, he also expects he could be involved in the run game on fly sweeps at some point.
“Shane does an amazing job of that, just seeing how he did things with the Rams," Hart remarked. "All of those guys - tight ends, receivers, running backs - they almost play all the same position being able to do a lot of different things on the field. I definitely anticipate being in position to do different things, whether that's blocking, playing running back, you know, being outside, being in a slide, really doesn't matter. I really think Shane understands that.”
With rookie D'Wayne Eskridge still on the PUP list dealing with a sore toe, Hart has been one of the beneficiaries receiving additional work with the first-team offense. To this point, he's taken advantage of those chances, continuing to earn more trust from Wilson and the coaching staff while improving his chances of remaining on the 53-man roster.
From Hart's perspective, his unexpected success after being passed by in the draft three years ago hasn't been about his physical tools as much as it has been about discovering his identity. Continuing to learn more about himself every day, he says he's found "peace in my life," which has made playing football a lot easier for him.
While Hart has once again exceeded everyone else's expectations for him and he's thankful for the compliments thrown his way from Carroll, Wilson, and others, he's far from satisfied and understands he must keep battling to maintain his place in the league. Holding himself to a higher standard, after positioning himself to take on a greater role for the Seahawks in 2021, he believes he has much left to prove.
"I expect my coaches and my teammates to think that I'm playing well and do what I have to do because I hold myself to an even higher standard, because I have an obligation to them to do my part in the offseason and even when the season comes. So I'm just continuing to do what I've been doing and, you know, take care of business.”