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Dan McDonald | Sun Belt Conference | August 7, 2015

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  Harden racked up 885 yards for the Panthers last season despite sustaining two injuries

ATLANTA – First, it was a knee injury two years ago, one that required surgery and forced him to miss his first year with Georgia State’s football team.

Last year, it was a shoulder injury from a horse-collar tackle that hampered Donovan Harden late in the 2014 season, coming right after a streak in which he had 21 catches for 318 yards and six touchdowns in just two games.

It's hard to say which one bothered him more on-field. Off the field, there was no question.

The shoulder injury, one that required off-season surgery, cut back notably on the Rialto, California, native's fishing time. He couldn't drop that lure exactly where he wanted to entice that Southern catfish he pursued.

"I've heard they're pretty big down here," Harden said, adding that California really does have catfish.

Now the shoulder's healed. The knee, reconstructed in November 2013, isn't an issue any more. And Harden is ready to make the impact in his senior season that the Panther coaching staff thought he would when he transferred from Illinois State before the 2013 season.

"When you have a guy like Donovan, it makes you look better as a coach and as a quarterback," said Georgia State coach Trent Miles. "We have to make sure we keep him healthy. He worked so hard in the off-season to get ready."

Harden and senior quarterback Nick Arbuckle started getting in sync after a slow start to 2014. After only four catches in the Panthers' first two games, Harden grabbed 20 balls for just under 300 yards in the next four. He followed that with a 10-catch, 132-yard, two-TD performance against South Alabama.

He was just getting warmed up.

One week later against in-state rival Georgia Southern, he caught 11 passes for 186 yards and a school-record four touchdowns.

But the shoulder problems started taking a toll. He didn't find the end zone the rest of the season.

"I was having to do a lot of things that weren't normal for me, block differently," Harden said. "Raising my arms above my head to catch balls was more difficult. But my team needed me, so I didn't want to get surgery in the season and I just fought through until afterwards.

"It kind of went away when I strapped the helmet on and my adrenaline started rushing. My dad tells me all the time not to think about it, and I just try to go out and work as hard as I can and try not to pay it any mind."

At least when it was his knee that hampered him, he could still enjoy the lakes and streams not far from the campus. He spent some of the summer offseason doing that with teammates, continuing a hobby he developed with his father even before he became a prep standout at Rancho Cucamonga High outside of Los Angeles.

"I went fishing a lot growing up with my father," he said. "I was probably about 10 ... I just loved it. I enjoy the outdoors. I'll catch catfish, bass, bluegill, whatever grabs the line. You go out there and it's relaxing. It's a day off away from everything, away from football, away from school, away from everything.

"There are days where you don't catch anything, but it's still a good day."

His shoulder limited those good days last season. While he was injured, he had several game-days when he didn't catch much worth keeping. But Harden said the individual numbers aren't as important as finding team success that has been fleeting for the Panthers over the past two years.

"It's not about me and personal accomplishments, it's about the team," he said. "If I'm not catching anything during a game, as long as we're winning ... it'd be nice to catch 10 balls a game, but as long as we get the win, then I'm satisfied."

Those wins should come at a more regular basis for what is now a mature Georgia State team. Miles played 15 true freshmen two years ago and had only 68 scholarship players last year, including only 18 scholarship defensive players available for a late-season game at Clemson.

Harden said the addition of strength coach Scott Holsopple, who joined the Georgia State staff from Kansas last spring, has helped him prepare more than ever for his final college season.

"He's been challenging us, not just physically but mentally," Harden said. "I know that's one thing we can use. We know we have to go back to the drawing board, and that starts with us older guys on the team, the leaders. If we have excellent leadership, that alone should get you three or four wins in a season."

Having a healthy Harden should help. He was a first-team All-Sun Belt pick with a 60-catch, 885-yard season despite the nagging shoulder, and was placed on the Biletnikoff Award watch list. He's also on preseason all-league teams picked by Lindy's, Athlon, The Sporting News, Phil Steele and the league coaches, heading up solid receiving crew that also includes junior Robert Davis, sophomores Glenn Smith  and Todd Boyd and UAB transfer Nyiakki Height.

"We need that one signature win, two or three wins to get it going," he said. "Getting bowl eligible, that's definitely the first goal. It would be a great feeling to go out and win the Sun Belt, but more than anything else we want to change everything around. That's our plan, that's what we're waking up every morning for."

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