The Colts’ receiver group in 2018 was... below average. One key point of emphasis for Chris Ballard was to add more depth and competition to the group. They added Devin Funchess through free agency and Parris Campbell in the second round of the draft. After the draft though, they were still adding as they signed Senior Bowl standout Penny Hart to an UDFA contract.
Hart is an outlier, as he is a 5’8” receiver who tested poorly at his Pro Day. So why did the Colts take a chance on a small and unathletic (in drills at least) receiver as a UDFA? I decided to ask his receiver coach at Georgia State just what made him so special.
Coach Trent McKinight joined Georgia State in 2017 when Penny Hart was a Junior receiver on pace to break multiple records in the Sun Belt Conference. In my conversation with McKnight, we talked about how Hart was so effective in the Sun Belt, how he was able to find success on and off the field in college, and why we shouldn’t doubt this rookie’s chances to make the team.
Interview with Coach Trent McKnight
ZH: You joined Georgia State in 2017 when Hart was already established with the program. Had you heard about him coming in or did you have any expectations for him upon arriving at GSU?
TM: Yeah, we had heard a lot of good things about him. You [don’t] really know until you actually get there and get a chance to work with them in person. I had heard a lot of good things about him, though, not only from people within the program, but also around the Sun Belt, because he came in as a Freshman and was the leading receiver in the league. He had already done a lot of good things, and already got his name out there, and had already been a productive receiver.
ZH: Your first year in 2017, he broke school records for both catches and for touchdowns that season. In your opinion, what was the key to that historic season for him?
TM: I think everything Penny has done in his life has come from the work that he has put in. It is like anything that anyone has success in, you got to go out there and work hard and try to get better every single day. A lot of people talk about that, but Penny truly lives that. I don’t think it was anything special offensively that we were doing, I think it was how much he had improved from his first year to that point in time. We did some things to move him around but I think it was more about how he improved as a player and the work ethic that he put in to reach those numbers.
Penny "Taylor Gabriel" Hart at it again pic.twitter.com/sQiRAz9udo— Billy Marshall (@BillyM_91) January 26, 2019
ZH: He was one of the most accomplished receivers in the history of the Sun Belt. To you, though, what about him as a person really stood out to you?
TM: When I think of Penny Hart, it’s all the intangibles, because he checks every box. From the standpoint of working hard, anytime you go out there, he’s there doing ball drills or studying film. He’s always trying to get other guys better, trying to get himself better, trying to study other receivers, do every drill that he can do to be the best that he can be. He has said this plenty of times but he doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder, he has a boulder. He lives that. A lot of people can talk about that but he truly lives that. I think all the intangibles in a person, I think that’s what Penny Hart is and that is what you want in your program.
ZH: I actually interviewed Penny before this past draft and he talked about how he and the receivers at GSU made an effort to improve as blockers going into 2018. Did you see that effort pay off on the field?
TM: Absolutely. I think that is who he is. Whether it is blocking on a run play, or he has to hold somebody up on some type of special teams, he’s going to do whatever he needs to do to give the team a chance to win. That may mean getting the ball to him ten times a game, sometimes it may be the fact that he needs to make ten critical blocks a game. That is the other thing with him. People follow Penny, he is a natural leader. Everybody loves him, everybody at our program still loves him, and I’m sure it’ll be the same out there. If he says that this is something we want to do and take pride in blocking, those other guys are going to follow in line. On top of everything, he is one of the best leaders I’ve been around.
Don't tell standout Senior Bowl prospect Penny Hart (#18) that he's 5'8", 180 pounds - pic.twitter.com/mcLcmk8j2f— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) January 26, 2019
ZH: The best part of his game is his route running and he put on a show at the Senior Bowl. Was that an area you had to work with him in or was he already pretty good in that area when you arrived?
TM: I think it is something, again, that he just wants to be the best that he can possibly be in. When nobody is out there and it is summer time, he is going to work on route running. When nobody else is up there at one in the afternoon, he is going to go study some of the top receivers in the game. His best friend, Robert Davis, is with the Redskins, so obviously he learns a lot from him too. I just think that is the way he is and the way he is going to get better because he doesn’t settle for God-given ability. He has worked himself into (being a very good route runner) because of his intangibles but also that chip on his shoulder and the mindset he has to dominate every play. He knows that not only at our level but going to the NFL, that is a critical piece of the puzzle being a good route runner.
Adderley is one of the best DBs in Mobile and WR Penny Hart got him pretty good with that controlled burst.— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) January 24, 2019
Twitchy + Crafty = Hart pic.twitter.com/6P6B9RLINY
ZH: Do you think he is better as a slot receiver or outside receiver?
TM: I think he can play either one. I think he can play anywhere, really, and that is one of those things that is interesting, really, because I went down to the Senior Bowl and at first, he was a backup slot and then next thing you know he was playing all over the park and ended up competing for a starting spot in the slot. I think that is one of the great things about him and why he is going to have success. We played him the last two years at an X boundary position and not many people are going to think that a 5’9” receiver can play X but he had a ton of success and dominated the game at X, so I think wherever he lines up, he’s going to have success. Obviously a lot of people wanted him as a slot but I think the best thing about him is that he can tell everybody in the room exactly what they are supposed to do. Not only in our receiver room, other positions on offense as well. That is big at the next level too because I know they only keep so many receivers and he can be a backup or starter at many positions. He provides a lot of flexibility for an offense.
ZH: Last question here. For anybody doubting Hart making this roster, what would you say to those people?
TM: I think going back to what we started with intangibles, there isn’t anybody going to be better than him. From work ethic to heart to toughness to passion, you aren’t going to find anybody better than Penny Hart. A lot of people doubted him out of high school because he only had one offer and that was to Georgia State. Then next thing you know, he was one of the top receivers in the country. He was the receptions leader in all of FBS football going into 2018. I think he has been in that situation before where people have doubted him and he has proven them wrong before, He proved here that he is not only one of the best Sun Belt receivers but also one of the best in the country and I think at the end of the day it goes back to the type of person he is. He is going to have success in whatever he does.
Penny Hart wins outside and gets over the top on Troy CB Marcus Jones. Does a good job of keeping his inside shoulder over the CB so that he can maintain his leverage advantage. Secures the ball through contact for a 45-yard gain. pic.twitter.com/1VGlHpqsLw— Fed Scivittaro (@MeshPointScout) October 8, 2018