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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Backyard Baller: ECU's Justin Hardy

Panther Nation give a warm welcome for C3's newest contributor, Gerin Honeycutt, a journalism major from East Carolina University.  Most important, however, this up and coming sports journalist is one of us, a die hard Panther fan!  Give it up for the newest member of the Crew and leave a comment for his first story! 

Don’t beat yourself up Panther fans, your next great wide receiver could be right under your nose. Well, 250 miles east under your nose at East Carolina University. Greenville, North Carolina is where NFL recruiters have discovered what two years ago would have been considered a “diamond in the rough.” Enter current ECU Wide Receiver/Punt Returner Justin Hardy. After a jaw dropping sixty-four reception, 658 yard, six touchdown and Conference USA All-Freshman team campaign, Hardy has done nothing but amass two seasons of inspired offensive production—202   receptions and 2,389 yards, averaging over a first down every time he catches the ball and let’s not forget those nineteen touchdowns. Consistent play like this has elevated the 6’1 190 lb Hardy off the list of NFL possible gems and onto a lot of NFL recruiter’s top wide receiver’s board for the 2015 draft.

Hardy catching TD on Panther CB Melvin White
The two time first team All-Conference selection does not shy away from competition either. If there are any Pirate readers out there, you guys know that ECU, season after season, always plays one of the hardest non-conference schedules of any low-tier FBS school. Let that not be a knock to ECU, who is set to start their first year in the newly settled American Conference this year. Today’s fans, however, seem more critical of schools not matched with a powerful conference’s logo, such as the SEC, B1G 10, ACC, and PAC-12. Many players underestimate talent found at smaller market colleges.  Just because a player didn’t come out of a large magnate high school or enter into a large market college program doesn’t mean that there isn’t top level talent at the smaller market schools.  The talent may be less acclaimed, but Hardy shows it’s there and that they can compete at the highest levels.

Hardy battled this irritating situation from day one, where his only scholarship offer was from Fayetteville State.  Hardy to eventually choose to walk on at ECU with the hopes of earning a scholarship instead. Hardy spent his first year as a redshirt trying to make a name for himself by splitting time at quarterback and wide receiver on the scout team. He’s worked, fought, and scrapped from day one.  It’s paid off at the collegiate level where he has become the top offensive option for the ECU Pirates. His work isn’t over yet though. Hardy has one last season at ECU to prove to critical NFL scouts that he is NFL ready.  What’s scary about this is that he Hardy only has three years of experience and still has a full season to work on this craft. If he keeps pace with his improvement and dominance to this point, he could wind up being a national standout and a favorite among NFL scouts.  

I recently spoke Hardy’s former teammate and ECU receiver, Andrew Bodenheimer. He quickly emphasized Hardy’s high football IQ, stating “If you put Hardy with a set of NFL coaches, he has potential to be one of the more dangerous wide receivers in the league.” From what I’ve seen on film, the only downside to Hardy is his knack to push himself too hard causing him sometimes to make plays harder on himself than they should be. Occasionally, you’ll see Hardy’s fundamentals slip in the process. NFL scouts know this is an easy fix that can be coached out by even a sub-par wide receiver coach.

Another unsung attribute to add to Hardy’s skill set is his impressive blocking ability. He constantly finds a way to get into the chest of safeties and linebackers who trump him in size, yet his technique is so smooth he manages to win the higher percentage of those battles. He’s also tallied a good amount of crack backs, and every fan loves a good crack back! Hardy’s willingness to block downfield is an attribute cherished by the Carolina Panthers.  Every receiver they have brought in this offseason is willing to get on a defender in support of the run-game.  Hardy would fit right in the Carolina Culture.

While all of these qualities help chisel Hardy’s sculpture, none help set him apart from other receivers more than his elite catching and playmaking abilities. With disproportionately humongous hands, Hardy is basically a wide receiver equipped with two catcher’s mitts, enabling him to catch anything in his area code. Let’s just say he’s no Brandon Lafell if that helps boost any Panther fan’s confidence. Hardy has made numerous circus catches throughout his career, many over top-tier defensive backs. The scariest part about Hardy’s game is his Dante Hall-like agility when he has the ball in the open field. Hardy even averaged nearly nine yards a punt return last year, showing he is an effective special teams’ contributor.

The young star has impressively been able to amass such numbers when being the focus of opposing defenses as well.  Facing double teams, game after game, Hardy has still put up monster numbers. Lincoln Riley, ECU’s Offensive Coordinator, loved putting Hardy in sets that isolated him on one side of the field. I’m sure he didn’t mind Hardy’s versatility to work the slot either.

Hardy’s speed isn’t out of this world.  He will probably clock in the mid to high 4.5s when we do see an official time.  Being a straight burner isn’t his game though.  Hardy has that rare skill set that translates in the NFL just as much as speed does.  He is fearless, hardworking, has crazy hands, and has playmaking ability.  We’ve seen the fast guys, Ted Ginn and Hayward-Bay that had the speed, but lacked the tools.  Hardy has better than average speed and a skill set that makes scouts drool.

Hardy is kind of a new aged Hakeem Nicks minus the injuries, but adding the voluntary team activities. Any team, not just the Panthers, would be fortunate to have this guy. To me however, the silky smooth Hardy looks like the perfect piece beside Kelvin Benjamin to load Cam up with for the future. Tune in this year to Justin Hardy folks.  After his opener against North Carolina Central, he and his Pirates take on the South Carolina Gamecocks on ESPN 2, Saturday September, 6th at  7 P.M. I guarantee you the show will not disappoint. S o in the words of the six-time pro bowler Terrell Owens, “Get your popcorn ready.”

By Gerin Honeycutt         

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