Quick to Catch On

CHAMPAIGN - So far, Justin Hardee has let his play on the field do the talking.

Maybe he wants to let everyone know he how he feels. Maybe he has something on his mind.

But he won't be seeing the press for at least another week or so. It's coach Tim Beckman's policy to bar freshmen from media interviews until Big Ten play starts, so Hardee has no choice. And thus far, his play has been plenty loud enough anyway.

Hardee was recruited as a two-way star at Glenville High in Cleveland, Ohio, where he teamed with fellow Illini freshmen V'Angelo Bentley. He came to Illinois, he thought, to play in the secondary.

That didn't last long.

Depth at receiver was, and still is, in dire need of help. The coaches toyed with playing corners Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green on both sides of the ball, but they were too valuable on defense to be bogged down with other duties.

No, the coaches needed a full-time, legitimate player to help. Hardee was the best available and, by accounts not of his own, was more than willing to do anything the coaches ask.

"That's the one thing I'd say about him, is a very unselfish young man," said co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales.

This was the quickest way to get on the field and contribute, and when your coach asks you to do something, you do it. So the 6-1, 190-pound Hardee said yes.

With that settled, the season opener came and went. Hardee wasn't used and the receivers that did play didn't do much, outside of a 64-yard touchdown by Ryan Lankford.

Then came the trip to Arizona State. Junior Darius Millines was hurt early in the game, bad enough that he couldn't return. So guys like Hardee, Kenny Knight and Fritz Rock were thrown in there.

Hardee made his first catch -- a 17-yard pass that, in a blowout game, was a great deal more meaningful to him than to the outcome that night.

To the coaches, it showed he could answer the call.

"Darius went down and there was no hesitation," Gonzales said of Hardee's attitude that night in Tempe.

Sure, he may look raw in his route running. True, he's not exactly a technical receiver yet. What he does have is athleticism and speed, deceptive quickness, at that.

"I definitely didn't think he was that fast, but I've seen him run a couple of times and he's very fast," Lankford said.

In practice he continued to use his strengths to get open, no matter if the subtle nuances of the position were used or not. And more importantly he showed he could catch.

"I think the biggest thing is he's a quick learner," Gonzales said. "To be out there and being able to change multiple positions and multiple formations."

The following week, with Millines still iffy, the coaches wanted Hardee to log more time, to provide him with a chance to take another step forward.

Five catches and 99 yards later, he had posted team-leading numbers in the win against Charleston Southern. The game may have been out of reach, a 44-0 runaway. And the quarterback Hardee most likely will play with most in the future was on the sideline, a bum ankle having forced Nathan Scheelhaase to sit another one out.

But for Hardee, the variables didn't matter. He was catching passes in a college football game, less than two months removed from preparing to stop those same types of throws as a cornerback before the switch.

"I'm excited about him," Gonzales said. "As long as he continues to work and continues to improve on his fundamentals, the little things, we can work on them with him."

What's next? How about a touchdown. Or maybe he'll return to the sideline when Millines gets healthy.

Perhaps when he's finally able to start talking the talk, in the locker room following the Penn State game Sept. 29, he'll still be walking the walk.

With an athlete like Hardee, a young player reaching for potential at a position with seemingly endless opportunity, nothing seems out of the conversation.


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