East Carolina senior wide receiver Justin Hardy is on pace to become the NCAA's leading career receiver, but he'll face his toughest test Saturday when he and the Pirates take on Virginia Tech, which has one of the nation's top two or three secondaries.
Hardy (6-foot-0, 188 pounds) is tied for fourth nationally this season with 19 receptions, for 220 yards and two TDs. He has 285 career catches, meaning he is 65 away from surpassing former Oklahoma star Ryan Broyles as the all-time leading receiver. Hardy has averaged 101 catches in the past two seasons.
ECU wide receivers coach Donnie Kirkpatrick has called Hardy a "definite first-round pick," and Pirates offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley has said Hardy has some of the same qualities as San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Riley was an assistant at Texas Tech when Crabtree was there, and Crabtree is a former first-round pick.
Hardy lacks elite speed, but he has been clocked as fast as 4.49 in the 40. He is athletic, elusive and gets in and out of his cuts quickly, though, and has thrived in the slot; he also has been used outside in ECU's pass-happy offense, which is modeled after Mike Leach's "Air Raid" attack.
One aspect to watch this week: He had his lowest yardage total of the season against Virginia Tech in 2013, with just 31 yards on six catches. Virginia Tech won 15-10 over the Pirates last season at ECU, and prolific Pirates quarterback Shane Carden had one of the worst games of his career, throwing for just 158 yards and tossing three interceptions. He also was sacked seven times.
Carden (6-2, 221), a senior who is an NFL prospect himself, threw for 4,139 yards and 33 TDs last season; he passed for 321 yards and a TD in a loss to South Carolina last week.
"They're dangerous," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said of the Pirates during his weekly news conference. "Anybody that can throw the football the way these guys can throw it is dangerous."
And Beamer said his team won't be complacent just because they shut down Carden last season.
"I read our team all the things that he's accomplished and is getting ready to accomplish this year. It took about eight minutes to get through all the stuff," Beamer said on the ACC coaches' teleconference. "He's an accomplished guy who is in a system that is perfect for him. They have a better running game (this season), and that really helps him. That really adds to their offensive team right there. We've got to get after him."
On paper, this might be the toughest test for Virginia Tech's touted secondary this season. Sophomore cornerbacks Kendall Fuller (6-0, 190) and Brandon Facyson (6-2, 189) are a high-level duo, and the same goes for senior safeties Detrick Bonner (6-1, 206) and Kyshoen Jarrett (5-11, 200). Sophomore nickelback Chuck Clark (6-0, 208) struggled in the first half last week against Ohio State, and if he is assigned to cover Hardy, that could be a matchup that ECU looks to exploit.
Another ECU player who will have a chance to impress scouts this week is junior left tackle Ike Harris (6-7, 304), who likely will spend much of his day trying to keep Virginia Tech junior defensive end Dadi Nicolas (6-4, 231) out of the backfield. Nicolas tormented Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett with his pass rush in the Hokies' win at Ohio State last week.