Ascension to stardom

Published 10:09 am Wednesday, August 27, 2014

ECU ATHLETIC MEDIA RELATIONS | CONTRIBUTED PASSING THREAT: The Pirate tandem is garnering preseason awards and NFL attention, but what truly links the quarterback and receiver is their resilience.

PASSING THREAT: The Pirate tandem is garnering preseason awards and NFL attention, but what truly links the quarterback and receiver is their resilience.

Carden and Hardy are bonafide stars, but the claim wasn’t easy


For the Washington Daily News


GREENVILLE — Heading into the 2014 season, Justin Hardy is on the Biletnikoff Award Watch List, given to the nation’s top receiver. He is 83 receptions away from tying the career NCAA FBS record in that category, which is realistic considering he had 114 last season. Hardy is easily an NFL draft pick right now, and his stock seems to rise daily.

His quarterback and close friend Shane Carden completed over 70 percent of his passes last year, threw for 4,139 yards and 33 touchdowns and led the Pirates to their first 10-win season since 1991. The senior now finds himself on quarterback watch lists and has even been touted as a 2014 Heisman contender by American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco.

There is no limit to what this pair of Pirates can accomplish, both this season and moving forward, but no one could have foreseen their future greatness this time five or even four years ago.

Hardy was born in Washington, but grew up in Vanceboro, where he attended West Craven high school.

It’s safe to say at this point that he was under-recruited as a senior. His only original offer was from Fayetteville State, where his brother played quarterback.

Hardy was invisible to power FBS programs, but his high school career wasn’t short of accolades. He compiled 2,500 passing yards and 35 touchdowns as a quarterback in his senior season to earn all-area, all-conference and offensive player-of-the-year honors. He was also a star on his basketball team.

“We just about missed on him and he’s only about 20 minutes from here,” said ECU inside receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick. “Sometimes you have to be careful not to skip the guys that are in your backyard. We had a coaching change when coach Holtz left. When we brought this air raid offense in, we needed more receivers. We got a call from his coach saying, ‘Hey, you missed on this kid. You can use this guy, especially with what y’all are going to do offensively,’” he recalled.

Hardy was accepted by ECU as a preferred walk-on in 2009 and was limited to scout team his first year. But 3,047 yards, 25 touchdowns, multiple all-conference honors and a Biletnikoff Watch-List nod later, Hardy is primed to become easily the most accomplished Pirate receiver in school history.

“From the moment he got on campus we said, ‘Wow, how lucky are we?’” Kirkpatrick said. “If we didn’t have Dwayne Harris and Lance Lewis (two future NFL players) going at that time, he could have played as a true freshman. His attitude stood out on scout team, how hard he worked on every play, and it was obvious that he knows how to go get the ball.”
“My mindset coming into college was to prove everybody wrong,” remembered Hardy. “I didn’t really get a chance, so I was focused on showing people I can play.”

Following the 2012 season, Hardy’s claim as the Pirates’ go-to receiver was established, but adversity crept back into his life with the loss of his father, Sam Hardy, in February.

“He’s the guy that really got me started with football, but he’s made me stronger,” Hardy said.

It’s no surprise that his most productive season was his junior year, following the loss of his father.

Hardy’s quarterback may not have had to deal with the loss of a father, but Carden’s ascension to stardom was not without setbacks.

The now redshirt senior and graduate of ECU’s sports studies major was also lightly recruited coming out of high school, despite an illustrious amateur career. The Houston native led his Episcopal Knights to their first conference title since 1994 in his senior season.

ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley handled the recruitment of Carden and brought him to ECU in his first season under the newly hired Ruffin McNeill.

His career started slowly. Carden was redshirted in his first season and relegated to scout team in his second.

It was there where coaches could see the undeniable chemistry between Carden and Hardy.

“They seemed to have a bond even back then,” said Kirkpatrick. “They both simply wanted to be great. Sometimes kids are on the scout team and they think, ‘I’ll start competing when I get on the real field.’ Not these two. They wanted to beat the first-team defense. And I think that added to their friendship off the field as well.”

The summer of 2012 was his chance to earn his spot as ECU’s starting quarterback. He was in a heated competition with then-junior Rio Johnson. Carden suffered a broken finger that put him behind and ultimately contributed to his initial role as backup. But Johnson struggled mightily in his first two contests, and it didn’t take long for the Texas product to claim sole possession of ECU’s first team.

“When I broke my finger, it was tough,” Carden said. “But it gave me more time to watch film. I took that to another level because it was all I could do. When you come in, you have to realize it’s not high school anymore. You’re at the bottom of the totem pole and you have to work your way up.”

McNeill and his staff are clearly fortunate to have the duo, not only for production, but also as an example for younger players.

“For any kid that’s in here this year as a freshman that’s going to be redshirted, we’ve been able to say, ‘The two best players on the team were right where you are at,’” Kirkpatrick said.