Justin Hardy’s 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 185 pounds, Hardy doesn’t match the model of a marquee Division-I receiver. But after a breakout season at East Carolina 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 USA’s most explosive offenses.
Hardy had six catches, including one for a touchdown, in East Carolina’s season-opening 35-13 win against Appalachian State this past Saturday. Last season, he 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, N.C., native has overcome adversity along the way. After graduating from West Craven (N.C.) High in 2010, Hardy wasn’t offered a scholarship to play at ECU but enrolled 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 wasn’t 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 ECU’s season opener against South Carolina last season and adding 10 more three games later against North Carolina, Hardy had established himself as one of the offense’s 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, he’s making a case as ECU’s next big thing.
Hardy understands that expectations are higher in 2012. His offensive coordinator, Lincoln Riley, said he expects Hardy to be among the best players to have played at ECU
At a program that has seen NFL players such as Chris Johnson and David Garrard pass through, Riley’s 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 Texas’s Tech’s most potent offenses. Riley compared Hardy’s skill set to that of Crabtree’s 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 it’s effortless,” Riley said. “He’s not the fastest receiver on the field, but he plays at a high speed like Welker. There’s just never any hesitation or confusion in the way he plays.”
Riley hints that Hardy’s breakout season in 2011 was just the beginning.
“He certainly set the bar high, and he’s a lot better than any point than last year,” Riley said. “He’s 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. “It’ll all come out during game situations.”
Following a 5-7 season, Hardy’s goals are clear.
“Winning season, getting back to a bowl game, that’s good,” he said. “Winning a Conference USA championship, that’s even better.”