ECU's Hardy closes in on all-time catch record
The fifth-year senior needs four catches - less than half his weekly average - to set the record Saturday against Tulane.
''I really don't think about it,'' he said. ''The more I think about it, the more I'd probably be like, `Well, I've got to do this, I've got to do that.' I can't get away from the game.''
The 6-foot, 188-pound Hardy entered the year needing 84 catches to break the record of 349 set by Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles in 2011, well within reach considering he had 88 catches as a sophomore and 114 as a junior.
Hardy, who may not be the most athletic player on the field, has a knack for getting open. He's also benefited from playing in a pass-heavy attack.
He has had four games with at least 10 catches, including his 15-catch, 188-yard effort last week at Cincinnati. He has 80 catches for 1,002 yards and seven touchdowns for the Pirates (6-3, 3-2 American Athletic Conference), ranking third nationally in receptions per game (8.9) and eighth in average yards receiving (111.3).
He's been a vital part of East Carolina's offense, so much so that normally good-natured coach Ruffin McNeill has been vocal with his displeasure that Hardy wasn't a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award presented to the nation's top receiver. AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco weighed in Wednesday, too, issuing a statement saying Hardy deserved to be included and that ''anyone who has seen Justin play this year would have to conclude that he is among the best receivers in the nation.''
No one has to sell Tulane coach Curtis Johnson on Hardy's potential. The receiver had career highs of 17 catches and 230 yards receiving in last year's meeting.
''I know the NFL scouts are very high on him,'' Johnson said in a statement provided by the school. ''He's a terrific receiver.''
Hardy was an overlooked recruit with one Division II scholarship offer from Fayetteville State out of West Craven High, a school that runs the spread offense about 25 miles southeast of the ECU campus in Vanceboro.
He ended up as a preferred walk-on at East Carolina, which needed receivers once McNeill took over in January 2010 and installed the spread. He worked on the scout team that first year, earned a scholarship the following season and has been in a leading role ever since.
Once the season ends, the question is whether Hardy's success will carry over to the NFL.
Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks said teams will watch to see how Hardy adapts to running routes for pro-style offenses during postseason all-star games and the scouting combine. But Brooks - an analyst with NFL Media that includes NFL.com, NFL Network and other league ventures - said ''there's certainly a place'' for Hardy in the league.
''I think from a scouting perspective, you're looking for guys who are kind of blue-collar workers, guys who are unafraid of putting it down on the practice field to earn their spot in the league,'' Brooks said. ''... You're getting a guy who understands what it's like being a role player in the league and sometimes those guys end up being the best players on your team because they're willing to wear multiple hats and really thrive doing multiple things.''
Hardy has generally deflected questions this season about the record chase. He said he'll just focus on doing his job Saturday, then move on with a record he'll savor more after the season.
''I probably won't even think about it,'' he said. ''Once gametime starts, it's like I'm locked in. I don't hear anything else outside of what I'm doing.''
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