Kevin Yost did everything he could. He called. He sent film. He practically begged. He even hand-delivered a tape of Justin Hardy highlights to East Carolina’s football offices. In the end, no one was interested in his wide receiver. Not East Carolina. Not any Division I school.
Yost, Hardy’s coach at West Craven High School, didn’t know what to think. College recruiters had no trouble finding his players in the past – a year earlier, North Carolina landed receiver Erik Highsmith – but they completely ignored Hardy, his receiver-turned-quarterback, who desperately wanted to go to East Carolina, 25 miles from his home in Vanceboro.
Maybe it was because Hardy was 6-foot-nothing, a scrawny 160 pounds without blazing speed. Maybe it was because Hardy moved from wide receiver to quarterback as a senior in the fall of 2009. Or maybe everyone was just wrong. Dead wrong.
“Other schools would come in and look at him,” Yost, now the coach at Pamlico County, said this week. “He just didn’t look the part. That’s what’s frustrating about recruiting. Just because a kid’s not 6-4, 230 pounds as a high school player doesn’t mean he isn’t going to be a player.”
By February of his senior year, Hardy had one scholarship offer, to play quarterback at Division II Fayetteville State. That was it. He signed.
And here’s where fate takes a hand. Here’s where Hardy reached one of those crossroads in life where paths diverge, with unanticipated consequences and untold rewards. Had then-East Carolina coach Skip Holtz not left for South Florida that offseason; had new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley not been in desperate need of receivers for his spread offense and found the film Yost had sent lying around the office; had Yost not single-handedly battled with the NCAA, filing an appeal to get Hardy released from his letter of intent …
Just when fate seemed to be conspiring against Justin Hardy, it gave him a break. And has he ever made the most of it.
Hardy walked on at East Carolina in the summer of 2010. Four years later, he’s the school’s all-time leader and the nation’s active career leader in receptions (289) and receiving yards (3,314) and holds the school record for touchdown catches (27).
Going into Saturday’s game against North Carolina, he’s 61 catches from breaking the all-time Division I record of 349 set by Oklahoma’s Ryan Broyles in 2011. He has also thrown for two touchdowns, his high-school quarterbacking days put to good use.
His productivity is exceeded only by the unlikelihood of his circumstances, how nearly he came to never having this chance at all.
“There are times I think about, I’m lucky to be here,” Hardy said after practice this week. “Things like that. I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t here, don’t know where I would be. Things like that, I do think about. But as far as the numbers? I will never think about it until I’m done at ECU.”
From the first rep, ECU knew ...
Hardy is the most productive player in one of the nation’s most productive offenses, and he basically walked in off the street, largely unnoticed and mostly unwanted – at least until his first training-camp practice.
“The first rep, the first drill he ever did, the first day of two-a-days,” Riley said. “When you see it, you see it. It was just an easy, simple catching drill. Sometimes you just see something with guys. Not like it was hard to see, like I’m some visionary, none of that. It was just very obvious he had some big-league skills.”
So here’s what the recruiters missed, that Riley and everyone at East Carolina could see right away:
They missed his hands, giant mitts that hang from his wrists like boxing gloves – 10 inches from middle finger to wrist, 9 from thumb to pinky – and suck footballs into their maw.
They missed his brains, a 3.8 grade-point average in high school who East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill says has never missed a college class, one who taught teammate Cam Worthy the entire offense in his free time after Worthy joined the Pirates from junior college.
They missed his feet, the quick shimmy at the line to gain separation, the invariably precise routes that shake defenders loose.
And they missed his heart, the burning desire to play football at the highest level, the humility to keep working at it.
“He has some of the best hands I’ve seen in 34 years of coaching,” McNeill said. “In this offense, some great receivers have come in the 15 years I’ve been around it, and the roll call is short before you get to his name. Like, maybe one or two.”
To be fair, his opponents don’t necessarily see it either. In three games against the Tar Heels, Hardy has 20 catches for 164 yards and a touchdown. They should know him pretty well at this point.
And yet to ask about what Hardy does well, what makes him unique, is to be left awash in vague platitudes and occasionally faint praise.
“He does everything a receiver needs to do,” North Carolina defensive back Tim Scott said. “He’s just smart. He runs his routes crisp. There’s nothing really you can say that’s wrong with the kid.”
And that’s fine. Hardy may not be the biggest or fastest player on the field, but he long ago learned how to make everyone pay anyway.
“I’ve just tried to make myself good at what I’m good at – perfect my route-running, catching the ball, anything like that,” Hardy said. “Those things separate myself.”
In that respect, Hardy is in the right place. East Carolina built its football program on a foundation of taking on all comers and knocking off more than its share, like last season’s 55-31 rout of the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill. Hardy scored the opening touchdown.
“We kind of came in underrated, chip on our shoulder, to a university that has that reputation,” East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden said.
Driven toward greatness
Carden and Hardy built their relationship on the scout team in 2010. Hardy would play some quarterback – he emulated Russell Wilson in practice leading up to East Carolina’s 33-27 win over Wilson and N.C. State – and Carden some tight end, but mostly Carden would throw in Hardy’s direction and Hardy would catch it.
Four years later, they haven’t slowed down, although their connection runs deeper than that. They’re from different backgrounds, one from Down East, the other from Texas, and followed different paths to East Carolina. They only became closer in February 2013, when Hardy’s father, Sam, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 48.
Hardy’s mother, Tara, is a minister in Vanceboro. His father was a crane operator at the Weyerhauser mill in Ayden. His two older siblings were scholarship athletes. They inherited their work ethic from their parents, but Hardy’s big hands came straight from his father – as did one final dose of motivation.
“He’s not a guy who talks too much about emotional things unless you get into a conversation like that,” Carden said. “He always talks about what his ‘why’ is, and I believe that’s what it is. He’s a dedicated guy. He was before, but especially now. He puts everything he has into this game.”
Hardy has already graduated from East Carolina with a degree in sports studies, but he has unfinished business on the football field. The Pirates have lofty goals for this season, their first in the American Athletic Conference, and Hardy is within striking distance of Broyles’ NCAA record – astounding even playing in the high-tempo spread offense McNeill and Riley brought with them from Texas Tech.
“He’s benefited from this offense just like (Michael) Crabtree and any other receiver, because this offense creates opportunities,” Riley said. “But make no mistake: This guy would be a starter anywhere in the country. If things go his way and he continues to stay healthy and humble, he’s going to start for somebody for the next several years.”
Unlike college recruiters, NFL scouts have not overlooked Hardy. His size and speed won’t measure well at the combine, but his game film, hands and technical prowess have raised eyebrows, to say nothing of his eye-popping statistics.
East Carolina receivers coach Donnie Kirkpatrick said before the season he thought Hardy was a “definite” first-round pick, but draft analyst Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com projects Hardy as a second-day pick, somewhere in the second to third rounds, to a team looking specifically for a slot receiver.
“It’s easy to get lost in all the measurables when talking about receivers, but playing the position comes down to two aspects: Can he get open? And can he catch the ball?” Brugler said. “And I think Hardy does both of those things well.”
As Hardy continues to put up numbers, as records continue to fall, scouts will continue to take notice. Yost, his high-school coach, expects more.
“Every once in a while, I send him a text,” Yost said. “ ‘Are you an All-American yet? Are you in the NFL yet? Are you in the Hall of Fame?’ Just kind of challenge him.”
Hardy, who believed he could contribute at East Carolina when few else did, hasn’t shied away from a challenge yet.