Justin Hardy: The Career That Almost Wasn't

GREENVILLE, N.C. — Originally holding no Division I offers, ECU senior Justin Hardy ascended from walk-on status to become one of the premiere wide receivers in college football.

Five years ago, former West Craven High School football coach Kevin Yost tossed and turned at night — sometimes failing to get any sleep at all — constantly thinking of ways to get senior Justin Hardy noticed by Division I schools.

He was frustrated. It soon became an obsession for Yost, who remembers his wife getting upset with his constant fixation on Hardy. Nobody had expressed much interest in Hardy, whose only scholarship offer was from Fayetteville State, but Yost was absolutely convinced he had Division I talent on his hands.

“He was there making videos, highlight tapes, calling and contacting coaches to come tell them to watch,” Hardy said.

Today, you wouldn’t think that watching Hardy practice on the Cliff Moore Practice Complex turf fields. Now a senior wide receiver at East Carolina, Hardy, 22, is on full scholarship, holds every one of the school’s receiving records and is just 55 receptions shy of owning the Football Bowl Subdivision record for career catches.

To put it simply, Hardy, who arrived at ECU as a little-known, undersized walk on, has become one of the best receivers in college football today.

So how could this happen? In the media centralized age that we live in — with social media booming and seemingly everything and everybody uploaded in some form on Youtube — how is it possible that a player with talent of this magnitude slipped through the cracks?

As a junior at West Craven, Hardy played before several college scouts and was one of the starting receivers on the Eagles’ state championship team in 2008. But he was often times overlooked because of who played across from him: Erik Highsmith, the highly recruited wide receiver who went to North Carolina-Chapel Hill and now plays for the Minnesota Vikings.

A year later, in an effort to shoulder the losses of Highsmith and one of the school’s most prolific quarterbacks in school history, Brett Mooring, Yost asked Hardy to put his individual interests aside and become West Craven’s starting quarterback as a senior.

“He was the best receiver on our team, but I needed him somewhere else,” said Yost, who is now the head coach at Pamlico County High School. “He was just a competitor that was really just team-first. He was a coach’s dream.”

Playing a new position, Hardy still excelled. He passed for 2,500 yards, rushed for 1,500 more and accounted for 45 touchdowns in 2009. Yost also said he never had an off-the-field issue with Hardy and that Hardy boasted a 3.8 grade point average in the classroom at West Craven. It wasn’t enough, however, to attract any offers from Division I schools.

This was mostly because of Hardy’s size. Hardy was no taller than 6 feet, well lighter than 200 pounds and certainly did not fit the mold of a prototypical college wide receiver. And as signing day approached in 2010, he was set to go to Fayetteville State and had signed on to play there. Then, fate intervened.

Justin Hardy pulls in a catch against Tulsa.
(Kat Jessick/InsideECUSports.com)
Around that same time, then-ECU coach Skip Holtz surprisingly left Greenville to accept South Florida’s coaching job in January, leading to the Pirates hiring first-time head coach Ruffin McNeill, who had played defensive back at ECU from 1976-1979. A day later, Lincoln Riley joined McNeill’s staff from Texas Tech to run Mike Leach’s up-tempo, spread offensive scheme and become the youngest offensive coordinator in college football at 26 years old.

Yost quickly realized ECU’s new offense fit Hardy’s skill set to a tee, so he made one last pitch to the Pirates and sent them Hardy’s game tape. The only coach retained from Holtz’s staff was recruiting coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick, who had seen Hardy play at ECU’s camp the previous summer.

“He wasn’t that big, and he wasn’t that fast and he did a nice job, but we missed on him first,” Kirkpatrick said.

Not too long after receiving Hardy’s film, Kirkpatrick got a phone call from former ECU recruiting graduate assistant, Chris Ballance, who was a high school coach in New Bern at the time. Kirkpatrick vividly remembers Ballance telling him that Hardy was “the best player we’ve played in the last two years.”

That was enough for Kirkpatrick to go back and watch the tape of his future star receiver.

“I was like ‘Holy smokes!’ This kid is unbelievable,” Kirkpatrick said, describing his initial impressions. Once he showed the film to the other coaches, “it kind of took off from there.” Having just arrived from Texas Tech, Riley didn’t know much about Hardy and had some concerns, but couldn’t help to be impressed by what he had seen on tape. “I remembered we watched it several times and we had it narrowed down to a guy we knew from Texas. Justin’s film was probably just a little bit better.”

Although Hardy was set to attend Fayetteville State, ECU did just enough to pry him out of his previous signing and bring him on as a preferred walk-on.

Spending his first year on the Pirates’ scout team, Hardy’s responsibility was to simulate opposing teams’ offenses to help the first-team defense prepare each week. And even though he was asked to do several different things that year —Yost remembers Hardy calling to tell him he was imitating Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor one week — his teammates took notice. His future quarterback, Shane Carden, who was also on the scout team at the time, remembers giving his mother a phone call regarding his soon-to-be favorite target.

“I was like, ‘Mom, there’s this guy named Justin Hardy and I think he’s a walk-on, but I don’t know how because this dude’s a freak,’” Carden said. “He stood out. He stood out big time and I knew he was going to do big things.”

It wasn’t until the 2011 season that Hardy was lifted from the scout team to the active roster. The Pirates were opening the year against No. 12 South Carolina at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, the home of the Carolina Panthers.

In a NFL venue, against a top-tier Southeastern Conference football team, Hardy was not fazed by the stage and instead put on a show in his collegiate debut. In the first quarter, Hardy caught a slant pattern, spun away from a Gamecock tackler and lunged forward across the goal line for the game’s opening touchdown. He went on to grab 11 receptions for 91 yards that night.

Justin Hardy and his former high school coach Kevin Yost.
Yost gathered some of Hardy’s family at his home in Vanceboro, N.C. to watch the game on television. “It was very emotional watching him do what he did,” Yost said, adding, “It’s like you’re watching your son.”

In the next three years, Hardy became ECU’s most decorated receiver and even gave some thought to forgoing his senior year to enter the NFL Draft last spring. Now that he’s back, he is no longer under the radar and neither are the Pirates, who are currently ranked No. 22 in the national AP poll.

There have been low points too, though. When Hardy’s father, Sam, suffered a fatal heart attack at 48 years old in February 2013, Yost remembers sitting with an unemotional Hardy on the family’s porch. “I said it’s okay to be upset at some point in time and it’s okay to grieve,” Yost said consoling Hardy, who remained stoic. “The biggest thing is that he wanted to be there for his mom and his sister.” In the first game after his father’s passing — with the words “Rest in Peace, Pops” written on his cleats — Hardy hauled in an incredible 16 catches for 191 yards against Old Dominion.

Hardy’s story is well known by his teammates and the community of Vanceboro, N.C. McNeill, who nicknamed Hardy “Deuce” because of his uniform number, commonly refers to his players as his kids and even goes as far as to calling assistant coaches uncles and administrators grandparents. But in Hardy’s case, McNeill stepped in and became that father figure last February, while also leaning on Hardy to lead the younger players. “He makes it easy on you, but I take great pride in being there for him. He’s there for me as much as I am for him. He checks on me as much as I check on him and that’s what it’s all about,” McNeill said.

Hardy’s fellow starter at inside receiver, sophomore Isaiah Jones, was also under-recruited coming out of Austin, Texas, yet finished second to Hardy in every receiving category as a freshman last season. Jones said on a few occasions throughout the year that he looked up to Hardy not only because of his play on Saturdays, but because of the story of how he got there.

“It’s extremely motivational. Not only for me, but probably kids around the country,” Jones said. “What he has done has given me confidence to know that I can do it as well.”

But through the obstacles and his growing profile, Hardy’s personality has never wavered. Although he is quiet, his presence is always strong and he continues to cling tightly to the idea that actions speak louder than words. According to Hardy, his late father was the same way.

“He was a quiet guy. He didn’t say much, but when he did say something, you know where he was coming from,” said Hardy.

Hardy cites his journey as a large reason for his success. His trials are just as much a part of who he is as his small frame and his lack of lightning-quick speed and agility.

“You’ve always got to remember that. I was not recruited coming out of high school. I’ve got to have that chip on my shoulder,” he said defiantly. “I need to prove to them why they should have recruited me.”

Five years after Yost was making countless phone calls to get Hardy noticed, Kirkpatrick is now the one using every platform he has to promote Hardy to NFL teams.

“He’s the best in the country, there’s no question about it. Somebody is a fool if they don’t take this kid,” Kirkpatrick said. “I know I sound like that high school coach who was telling us and selling us that too, but that coach happened to be right.

“And I think I’m right about it too.”

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