GREENVILLE — Justin Hardys pregame routine since high school has been the same.
My mother and I always pray together, he said.
Perhaps their prayers have paid off. Standing just under six feet tall and weighing all of 185 pounds, Hardys figure doesnt exactly model that of a marquee Div. I receiver. But after a breakout season in 2011, Hardy, whose only other offer to play college football was from Fayetteville State, finds himself the clear top threat in one of Conference USAs most explosive offenses.
Hardy racked up 658 yards and six touchdowns on 64 receptions. His 5.82 receptions per game average was in the top 50 among all FBS receivers.
The Vanceboro native has overcome adversity along the way. After graduating from West Craven High School in 2010, Hardy wasnt even offered a scholarship to play at ECU. He enrolled anyway -- as a preferred walk-on.
He was a preferred walk-on in every sense of the word, coach Ruffin McNeill said. We would have offered him a scholarship if we could have, but there wasnt one available.
The next summer, Hardy got his scholarship, but still had to earn his way into the starting lineup. After catching 11 passes in ECUs season opener against South Carolina and adding 10 more three games later against North Carolina, Hardy had established himself as one of the offenses go-to receivers.
I knew I had to come out and make a case for myself in the game, he said. And I was able to do it.
Now, hes making a case as ECUs next big thing.
Hardy understands that expectations are higher in 2012. His offensive coordinator, Lincoln Riley, already said he expects Hardy to be among the best players ever to have played at ECU
At a program that has seen NFL players like Chris Johnson and David Garrard pass through, Rileys words carry strong weight and expectations.
It means a lot, and I want to make him correct, Hardy said.
Riley knows a thing or two about promising receivers. A former Texas Tech assistant, Riley helped coach Michael Crabtree to two Biletnikoff Awards. Crabtree, now with the San Francisco 49ers, played under Riley in some of Texass Techs most potent offenses. Riley compared Hardys skill set to that of Crabtrees and another former Texas Tech receiver Wes Welker, a Pro Bowler with the New England Patriots.
Justin catches the ball like Crabtree in the sense that its effortless, Riley said. Hes not the fastest receiver on the field, but he plays at a high speed like Welker. Theres just never any hesitation or confusion in the way he plays.
Riley hints that Hardys breakout season in 2011 was just the beginning.
He certainly set the bar high, and hes a lot better than any point than last year, Riley said. Hes got a drive that some of the great ones have. Our expectations are a lot higher and I think his are too.
Hardy refuses to get caught up in the hype.
I need to improve on my technique and it has to be more precise, he said. Itll all come out during game situations.
Following a 5-7 season, Hardys goals are clear for the 2012 Pirates.
Winning season, getting back to a bowl game, thats good, he said. Winning a Conference USA championship, thats even better.