ECU receiver Hardy still trying to prove he belongs

METAIRIE — Justin Hardy enters Saturday’s New Orleans Bowl with the talent of an all-Conference USA receiver and the determination, the controlled bitterness — even malice — of the walk-on he once was.

As if he is still trying to prove he belongs in Division I, just to earn the right to have his last name stitched on the back of his jersey. As if he must show out at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to earn a seat on the flight back to Greenville, N.C.

As if he hasn’t already transformed into the biggest mistake East Carolina (8-4) almost made.

“That’s still my motivation,” said Hardy, a sophomore receiver that Louisiana-Lafayette (8-4) will certainly not underestimate. “That’s the chip you’ve got to have, the mentality you got to have.”

Chip on the shoulder? Try a boulder.

This from a guy who enters Saturday’s game with 83 catches for 1,046 yards and 10 TDs, on pace to become the school’s all-time receiving leader.

“It’s just amazing to see the type of plays that he makes,” older brother Brian Hardy said. “It’s hard to describe sometimes. It almost seems like it’s supernatural.”

This story has been told several times in Pirate County.

Four years ago, Hardy was a standout prep receiver entering his senior season. His quarterback graduated. Hardy was asked to play quarterback, giving the team its best chance to win. He did, accounting for 4,000 yards of total offense and 45 touchdowns.

Problem was, colleges overlooked his heroics. Maybe the e-mails detailing his runs went to their spam folders. Or reports of his speed are still stuck in their fax machine’s memory. Even ECU missed out early, failing to recognize his talents when he attended its football camp the summer before his senior season.

With no Division I offers, Hardy signed with Fayetteville State, a nearby Division II college. His older brother, Brian, played quarterback there from 2007-09.

What happens next was luck, depending on what school you cheer for. Hardy’s scholarship papers at Fayetteville State were incomplete, remembered Donnie Kirkpatrick, recruiting coordinator/inside receivers coach at ECU. Also, head coach Skip Holtz departed for the University of South Florida and was replaced by Ruffin McNeill, who needed more receivers to operate his new up-tempo offense.

Around this time, ECU received a call from Hardy’s high school coach. He asked the Pirates to review some film on Hardy. The response was immediate.

“Man, I don’t know how we missed on this kid.”

ECU coaches marveled at his video résumé. Excitement turned into panic.

“As we watched him (on film),” Kirkpatrick said, “we realized we had to do something.”

With ECU maxed out on scholarships, the best it could offer Hardy was a shot as a preferred walk-on.

That didn’t bother Hardy.

“They kept it straight up with me,” he said. “Coming in, they let me know I’d have to work for everything that I got.”

He spent the 2010 season as a practice player. The following season, Hardy set a freshman record with 64 receptions and 658 yards, and he tied a freshman mark for TDs with six.

Hardy then spent last offeason working on his game.

He’s also improved his blocking by embracing the offense’s “You block, you play,” slogan for receivers.

“He really works hard at his craft,” McNeill said. “He wants to master the position. And at the same time, if you get a couple of sentences out of him, that’s pretty good. But he’s not being rude. He’s just really humble.”

Now he’s trying to help ECU win its first bowl game since 2007. At some point Saturday, Hardy will scan the Superdome for motivation, spotting an opponents, players he may know little about. He will then recall his journey to this field, much longer and treacherous than their road to Division I football.

There, he will find his motivation.