UPDATE: In one of the worst decisions ever made by mankind, Justin Hardy has been left off the Biletnikoff Award semifinalist list (a group of 10 players), which is handed to the nation’s top wide receiver.
“He’s not!? That’s the most idiotic thing I have ever heard in my life that they would not put that young man on there,” ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said in response to the news. “What are you looking for? A student? He already graduated. We had an academic meeting today and tried to find out how he can make the Dean’s List. He’s getting ready to break the all-time receptions record.
“I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but here is a `C’, here is an `A’ and I think there’s a `T’ around here somewhere (and) that spells CAT. Justin Hardy isn’t on there? I don’t know who is picking that. I hope these words get back to whoever didn’t choose him and my number is right here. I’m here all day.”
I play with the best receiver in the country, I don’t need an award to convince me of that @FreakMagic2
— shane carden (@Capn_Carden5) November 18, 2014
From a statistical profile, you could argue that East Carolina wide receiver Justin Hardy is the best to play the position in college football history. He’s one of the most underrated, to say the last.
Hardy’s 15-catch, 181-yard performance in the Pirates’ 54-46 loss to Cincinnati last week is a microcosm of an illustrious career that has him in position to break the NCAA’s all-time record for receptions (349) by early Saturday evening.
It was a game in which both offenses were all too familiar with the end zone, and he was overlooked—yet again—because of the scoreboard’s end result. The preseason All-American dominated the Bearcats’ secondary, recording 21 targets on the night (16 in the first half) while converting eight first downs, four of which came in a pivotal third-down situation. He also showed his big-play ability, catching two downfield passes of 31 yards apiece.
This isn’t the first time Hardy has exploded for numbers like these. In fact, such outings have become commonplace for the soon-to-be record-breaking senior.
As a four-year starter and the favorite target in a passing attack that has averaged over 270 yards per game since 2011 (368.3 in 2014), Hardy has 13 games with 10 receptions or more, four with 15-plus, and has broken the 100-yard mark 14 times. He’s also been in the nation’s Top 4 in receptions per game over the last two years.
But probably the most important stat that absolutely jumps off the page and suggests his supremacy as one of premier mid-major receivers in the history of college football: Hardy is 45-for-45 when it comes to recording at least one reception for every game he’s played in. To buff that one up a bit, he’s never been held to less than three.
Let that one sink in for a minute. 45 games, people. 45!
“Hardy has a nice hesitation move to gain clearance against press coverage,” CBS Sports’ Rob Rang wrote earlier this season. “Though he doesn’t possess elite top-end speed, Hardy accelerates quickly and cuts sharply. He has good vision and balance to shake would-be tacklers with the ball in his hands.”
In terms of consistency, there might not be anyone better to have ever stepped on the gridiron. Current FBS all-time leader and former Oklahoma wide receiver Ryan Broyles didn’t have four seasons with at least 60 receptions like Hardy. Purdue’s Taylor Stubblefield only had five touchdowns through his first three seasons. Houston standout Tyron Carrier couldn’t break the single-season 100-reception mark, and Antonio Brown didn’t stick around with Central Michigan long enough to vie for consideration.
Back in 2012, offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley—who coached receivers Michael Crabtree and Wes Welker while at Texas Tech—predicted that Hardy would end up being one of the best players to ever come through East Carolina, and reminded him of a hybrid between the two now-NFL products.
“Justin catches the ball like Crabtree in a 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.”
Considering how good the 6-foot, 185-pound Vanceboro (NC) native has been in the grand scheme of it all, it’s remarkable to think that he wasn’t even given a rating by 247Sports coming out of high school, didn’t accumulate a single scholarship offer, and was a preferred walk-on with the Pirates in 2010.
Now, Hardy is four catches away from being college football’s all-time leader in the category and is projected to be anywhere from a second- to- fourth-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, according to various draft websites.
And if Riley’s analysis is anywhere close to accurate, then Hardy is primed to continue his massive productivity and achieve great things at the next level.
“Hardy exhibits excellent polish and quickness as a route runner, consistently separating from coverage to give his quarterback an open target,” says draftbreakdown.com. “He is a natural hands catcher with exceptional ball skills, showing the ability to adjust to errant throws, naking even the toughest catches look routine. A talented punt returner, Hardy is an elusive ball carrier who can make defenders miss and slip open-field tackles.
“He is a smart player who is quick to recognize th blitz and break off his route to give his quarterback a safety outlet. Despite his size, Hardy displays good effort and technique as a blocker.”
With Tulane, Tulsa, Central Florida, and a bowl game left on East Carolina’s schedule, Hardy is on pace to beat his personal best of 114 single-season receptions by two, which would bring his career total to 382 and bump his overall average to 7.8 per game.
He is undoubtedly one of the most all-around effective receivers in recent memory, and could go down as the most underrated in the history of the game.