The 1,300-mile drive Josh Hart and his father will make to Pine Bluff, Ark., from Tucson starting Thursday is symbolic of the long yet promising road the young receiver has experienced in his football existence.
He anticipates reaching a place where he can make the most of the skills he first showed more than six years ago playing youth seven-on-seven ball with Bijan Robinson and Lathan Ransom for AZ Grind.
Hart played at Marana Mountain View before transferring as a senior to Salpointe for the 2018 season, enrolled at ASU as a preferred walk-on and served as a scout team member for the Sun Devils in 2019 and then transferred to Arkansas-Pine Bluff after last fall semester.
He holds the distinction of being the only local player currently on the roster of a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) program.
“I just feel like it’s a better opportunity, even though I went down one division (from ASU, a Power 5 school, to an FCS program),” Hart said recently before one of his many workouts this summer at Jet Sports Training. “It’s just better for me. It just sounds like I can grow more. I feel like I can shine there better, too.”
After catching 25 passes for 619 yards and seven TDs in his junior season at Mountain View, he moved on to Salpointe to be reunited with Robinson and Ransom. The Lancers advanced to the state championship game that season at Arizona Stadium against Scottsdale Saguaro.
HIs potential at 6-foot and 195 pounds — and the legacy of being a grandson of ASU receiver great J.D. Hill — landed him with the Sun Devils and coach Herm Edwards.
He sees himself as more than a scout-team player and jumped at the opportunity when Arkansas-Pine Bluff showed interest. First-year coach Doc Gamble, who made a name for himself in the coaching profession as a wide receivers coach at Kent State for five years, knew of Hart’s background and lured him to Pine Bluff.
“My first year there was this past semester (in the spring),” Hart said. “(Gamble) took us to the SWAC (Southwestern Athletic Conference) championship game, which is pretty nice. It was a pretty nice run we had.”
Arkansas-Pine Bluff lost to Alabama A&M in the title game on May 1 in a season played in the spring because COVID-19 forced the postponement of the fall season.
Making the transition from ASU, Hart immediately played for the Golden Lions, who finished 4-1.
Arkansas Pine-Bluff begins its fall camp this weekend with its opener slated for Sept. 4 against Lane College at home.
Hart will complete for playing opportunities with two high-profile receivers returning for the Golden Lions — Josh Wilkes and Tyrin Ralph, both of whom are sixth-year seniors who are taking advantage of the extended eligibility allowed by the NCAA because of COVID-19 affecting last season.
Wilkes led the Golden Lions with 25 catches for 341 yards and six touchdowns in its five games in the spring. Ralph had 24 catches for 307 yards.
Another top receiver — Harry Ballard III (23 catches for 313 yards) — entered the transfer portal and landed at Nevada as a graduate transfer.
Ballard’s departure could open the door for Hart to become a third starter in Gamble’s one-back offense that amassed 3,105 passing yards.
“My biggest thing I’m actually looking forward to this year is to gain the starting spot that’s up for grabs right now and then kind of have a little breakout year,” Hart said. “And then when I go into next year, I want to separate myself a little more.”
Because of his abbreviated schedule playing with Salpointe as a senior transfer and not playing at ASU in 2019 and briefly getting an opportunity with Arkansas-Pine in 2020-21, Hart’s last extended playing time was with Mountain View in 2018.
Hart has remained top physical shape over the summer by working out regularly at Jet Sports Training under the guidance of owner Bobby Rodriguez, a former Sunnyside standout who went to play at Arizona as a walk-on during the Mike Stoops era.
“Bobby’s just really hard and straightforward keeping you focused,” Hart said. “He puts us through a good program.”
Pine Bluff is a small community which has a population of only about 45,000. It is located 45 miles from Little Rock and 151 miles from Memphis.
Hart welcomes the opportunity to attend school and play in a small-city atmosphere after his experience at ASU, one he’ll use to benefit himself with the Golden Lions.
“At ASU, all those kids there and coaches, they kind of have the standard that they want to go pro,” Hart said. “That’s what the practices and the standards were like, the habits. The nutrition plan, making sure you’re eating the right way with your calorie intake and all that is something I can take from there. I feel like I can keep that going to give me a little edge.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District