No one notices Jesse Hardwick. Why should they, when there's so much else to focus on at Fresno State?
You have quarterback Trent Dilfer passing for 2,836 yards and 21 touchdowns. You have running backs Lorenzo Neal and Ron Rivers each gaining more than 900 yards. You have receivers Malcolm Seabron and Tydus Winans catching 41 and 33 passes, respectively.
You have the nation's top scoring team with an average of 40.5 points per game. Who's got time to watch some guy block?
Hardwick, a 6-foot-5, 295-pound senior offensive tackle from Bolsa Grande High, is used to obscurity by now. though.
But remember this: If Hardwick doesn't block, the offensive explosion never happens, and Fresno State doesn't win. All that firepower starts with Hardwick and his buddies in the trenches.
A quick scan of the All-Western Athletic Conference first team shows three Bulldogs. Dilfer. Sure. All those yards and touchdowns tend to catch the eye. Zack Rix, a senior nose guard. Sure. Somebody's got to make tackles.
Fact is, Hardwick might be the best offensive lineman Fresno State has turned out in Jim Sweeney's 15 seasons as coach.
Through 35 consecutive starts, Hardwick has proved himself as a dependable, sturdy lineman. But now he faces the biggest challenge of his football career.
Their names are Willie McGinest and David Webb--two of USC's toughest, most aggressive defenders. And two of the toughest, most aggressive defenders Hardwick will block.
It will be Hardwick's job to see that neither McGinest nor Webb interferes with Dilfer's passing, or the running of Neal and Rivers, when Fresno State plays USC in the Freedom Bowl Tuesday night at Anaheim Stadium.
"If you're going to do it, you might as well do it against the best," Hardwick said. "Somebody's got to block them.
"Webb is not the biggest lineman, but he's got no quit to him. He never quits. McGinest (a linebacker) has all the physical ability in the world, and he can run, too."
Rest assured NFL scouts will be keeping a watchful eye on Hardwick Tuesday night. If he does well, if he even holds his own, his stock in the upcoming NFL draft will surely rise. Being selected to play in the Japan Bowl on Jan. 10 certainly hasn't hurt his prospects, either.
"I don't know what kind of shot he'll have in the NFL," Sweeney said.
Anyway, all that's in the future, Hardwick said. What's really important is making sure the offense has time to work its magic against USC.
It's easy to tell when Hardwick is having a good game. All you have to do is watch the scoreboard.
Though he receives zero credit for a long run or a perfectly thrown pass play, that doesn't mean he doesn't take any credit. After all, without his blocks none of it could happen.
"Our credit comes on touchdowns and opening big holes," Hardwick said. "We feel as much a part of that as the guys who score do."
This is not something new for Hardwick, who was similarly overshadowed when he was an offensive and defensive tackle in high school.
As a senior at Bolsa Grande in 1987, his blocks helped three running backs each gain more than 1,000 yards, the finest single-season rushing performance by an Orange County team in the past 15 years.
Damon Fisher, Ricky Lepule and Travis Lui got all the publicity that went with the yards and the touchdowns, but in the end, Hardwick got the scholarship to a Division I-A school.
Fresno State was the last of Hardwick's five recruiting trips, and he liked what he heard from the Bulldog coaching staff.
"They didn't b.s. me," Hardwick said. "A lot of schools said I'd start right away. I'd be a star. The coaches at Fresno State were much more honest with me. They said I'd have to work my butt off."
Privately they believed Hardwick was a prized catch and wondered how he got away from Nevada Las Vegas, New Mexico, San Diego State and Utah.
"We're very fortunate to have him," Sweeney said. "Some kids are not nearly as advanced as Jesse was."
Taking the staff's words to heart, however, Hardwick put in the time and effort he figured he needed to improve. So what if he was already ahead of most of the freshmen linemen, he was bent on cracking the starting lineup and becoming a standout.
After redshirting his first year, he got a chance to start midway through his freshman season, and he hasn't missed a game since.
"He's a rock," Sweeney said. "He never changes. He never misses a practice or a game. He's never hurt."
Hardwick's impact has been hard to ignore, however easy it's been to watch others make the big plays.