East Carolina's Justin Hardy on brink of setting FBS record

Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports
East Carolina wide receiver Justin Hardy has drawn the attention of NFL scouts.

East Carolina's Justin Hardy is getting ready to break the FBS career receptions record. Actually, he's getting ready to smash it.

Not a bad ending to a college career for a guy who began his as a walk-on at ECU only after he was able to get out of a scholarship he had signed with Division II Fayetteville (N.C.) State.

Hardy has 346 career receptions, four away from breaking former Oklahoma star Ryan Broyles' FBS record of 349 (set from 2008-11). Hardy has four games left in his senior season; given that he's averaging nine receptions per game, he conceivably could finish his career with somewhere around 380 receptions -- and 400 isn't out of the question, considering that twice this season he has had at least 14 receptions in a game.

>> Heisman Watch: Candidates for college football's top individual award

Asked if he could fashion a dream scenario for the record-setting catch, Hardy told College Football 24/7 via phone on Tuesday, "I hope it's a touchdown so I can keep the ball."

Hardy (6-foot-0, 193 pounds) already has accepted an invitation to the Reese's Senior Bowl, and NFL Media analyst Bucky Brooks -- himself a former NFL wide receiver -- has called him "a legitimate big-time prospect based on his performance, production and skills." Hardy has been used in a variety of roles by the Pirates, lining up in the slot and out wide. Brooks noted that "Hardy's speed and quickness make him a tough matchup on the outside, but the Pirates will also go to him on an assortment of screens and quick passes designed to get him the ball in space."

So how would Justin Hardy start a scouting report on Justin Hardy? "Great pass-catcher. Knows how to get open." He also said his route-running ability is a big positive.

All this is heady stuff for a guy who was a 160-pound quarterback as a high school senior in Vanceboro, N.C. Hardy had been a wide receiver before being moved to quarterback as a senior, and he said he wasn't necessarily happy with the move to what he considered his second-best position. "But having the ball in my hands every play, can't really complain," he said.

>> CFB Playoff rankings: Six things you need to know

No FBS or FCS school was interested in a 160-pound quarterback, even though Hardy sent videotape of himself playing wide receiver to a number of schools, including East Carolina, whose campus in Greenville is about 30 miles from Hardy's high school. Thus, he signed with Division II Fayetteville State.

But new ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley -- who arrived from Texas Tech with new Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill -- came across Hardy's highlight tape and was impressed enough to call him. After some discussion, Hardy was able to get out of the scholarship with Fayetteville State. Still, there was no scholarship offer from ECU, which meant he had to walk on.

No problem: He adapted quickly to the "Air Raid" offense Riley brought with him from Texas Tech, and after redshirting as a true freshman in 2010, he received a scholarship in 2011 and immediately became a big producer.

Check out the top images from the 12th weekend of college football play.

Hardy had 64 receptions in 2011, 88 in '12, 114 last season and has 80 through nine games this season. Despite his success this season, Hardy was not one of the 10 semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award, which goes to the nation's best receiver. He said he was disappointed he wasn't on the list, but "life goes on."

ECU coach Ruffin McNeill was a little more pointed during his weekly Monday news conference: "That's the most idiotic thing I have ever heard in my life, that they would not put that young man on there."

Hardy has caught at least two passes in each of his 45 career games, and his large hands -- he sometimes wears gloves sized 3X -- help him latch on to balls. He has had 14 career 100-yard games and 13 games with at least 10 receptions.

Hardy professes to know that he would succeed in this offense from the first day he was on ECU's practice field. "There was a new coach, but we ran the same offense in high school," he said.

He said he was a big fan of Marvin Harrison and Jerry Rice while growing up, and prepared for his first season in ECU's offense by watching cut-ups of Texas Tech's offense featuring receivers Michael Crabtree and Wes Welker; Riley had served as Mike Leach's wide receiver coach with the Red Raiders before moving to ECU. These days, Hardy says he watches tape of players such as Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, along with tapes of the Indianapolis Colts' and San Francisco 49ers' offenses. "But I'm looking at the receivers," he admitted.

>> CFB Playoff Picture: If the season ended today

He will get an opportunity to join those NFL receivers in April. His draft status ultimately will be determined by how he performs at the Senior Bowl, at the NFL Scouting Combine and at his pro day, but he will be drafted; the question is how early. He said he will begin training for the combine as soon as the season is over, though he doesn't know where he will train yet; ECU seems likely to play in a pre-Jan. 1 bowl, though there is the possibility the Pirates' postseason game could be Jan. 2 or 3.

Broyles, the guy whose record he is going to break, was a second-round pick by the Detroit Lions in the 2012 draft. Broyles (5-10, 188) and Hardy are roughly the same size, and they are two of just six players to reach the 300-receptions mark. The others: Houston's Tyron Carrier had 320 (from 2008-11), Purdue's Taylor Stubblefield had 316 (2001-04) and Marshall's Josh Davis (2001-04) and Western Michigan's Jordan White (2007, 2009-11) each had 306.

Hardy said he is committed to continuing to work hard wherever he ends up. "I hate losing as much as I love winning," he said.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.