East Carolina's Hardy thriving in spread offense
Justin Hardy arrived at East Carolina as a walk-on hoping to earn his way onto the field. He's grown into the go-to receiver in the Pirates' pass-heavy spread attack.
Hardy, a 6-foot junior, is already nearing the top of the school's receiving record books and always seems to be open. And he knows the ball is coming his way when the Pirates play Virginia Tech here Saturday.
"We get told a lot that great players are consistently good," Hardy said. "So I try to be as consistently good as much as I can — making the routine plays, plays that I know I should make. I try to make those plays and I just go from there."
Hardy entered the year as the Pirates' top receiver after hauling in 88 catches for 1,105 yards and 11 touchdowns last year.
He opened this season with 16 catches for 191 yards against Old Dominion. Going back to his 16-catch, 171-yard game against Marshall in November, it made him the first player in Conference USA history to have at least 16 catches in more than one game.
He followed that with his first touchdown catch in Week 2 against Florida Atlantic, and has more than twice as many catches as any East Carolina player this season.
"He's a dynamic player," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "He's a punt returner for them too and I mean, he's legit."
Hardy enters the weekend ranked second among active Bowl Subdivision players in receptions per game, with his 6.88 catches per game ranking behind only Southern California junior Marqise Lee (7.63).
Not bad for a guy that had earned only one scholarship offer out of West Craven, a school running the spread offense about 25 miles southeast of the ECU campus in Vanceboro. That offer came from Division II Fayetteville State.
He came to Greenville as a preferred walk-on, though offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said Hardy developed so quickly that the coaching staff nearly reversed its plan to redshirt him.
"He kind of had that feeling when he walked in here that he belonged," Riley said. "It wasn't that deer in the headlights. It was like he had been here for a while."
Quarterback Shane Carden, also a lightly recruited prospect with just one other scholarship offer when he arrived in 2010, remembered Hardy making an impression on everyone as they worked together on the scout team. Now Hardy has developed into the player that Carden — who has thrown seven touchdowns with no interceptions this year — looks for first.
"We were very underrated and we both knew that about each other and both kind of liked the feel of that," Carden said. "We're underdogs. We like it.
"Ever since that first day on scout team, I was watching him make plays and I was thinking, 'This is something special.' And I hoped at some point in our careers we'd get to take it on that field — and lucky enough we've been able to do that."
Hardy has started 22 of 25 games in his career. He's already second in school history in both receiving yards and catches, and fourth in TD catches. He's on pace to own all three records by early next season.
He won't need to look far for motivation Saturday. Hardy struggled in the 17-10 loss to the Hokies in Greenville as a redshirt freshman, managing just three catches for 31 yards.
"Shane's a good quarterback — he's going to get the ball to the open man," Hardy said. "For me, I'm just waiting for my turn. I'm doing everything right that I'm supposed to do and if I do everything right, the ball will come my way."
AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz in Blacksburg, Va., contributed to this report.