GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Justin Hardy and Shane Carden started their East Carolina careers working together on the scout team. Four years later, their connection means everything to the Pirates’ pass-heavy attack — and has put both fifth-year seniors within reach of all kinds of records.
Hardy, a former walk-on, has the chance to set the bowl subdivision record for career catches and already owns the program record for career receiving yards. Carden, meanwhile, could own nearly every ECU career passing record by the end of the year.
“They were doing it the hard way when none of you guys even knew their name,” offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said. “They’re still doing what they’re doing, just on a little bit different stage.”
The numbers have added up quickly, especially for Hardy.
He has 266 career catches, putting him 84 away from passing Oklahoma’s Ryan Broyles (349) for the FBS career record set in 2011. Hardy had 88 catches as a sophomore and 114 as a junior.
“I still have to perform,” Hardy said. “I’ve still got to practice hard. I’ve still got to practice like my position might get taken, so I’m not really focused on that right now.”
Carden, who spent two years on the scout team, won the starting job early in the 2012 season and led the Pirates’ spread offense ever since with Hardy as his go-to target.
That Carden-to-Hardy connection accounted for 1,284 yards last year to rank second among returning quarterback-receiver duos in FBS, according to STATS. Only Baylor’s Bryce Petty-to-Antwan Goodley tandem (1,339 yards) had more.
Carden and Hardy helped ECU average a program-record 40.2 points in the program’s first 10-win season since 1991. That included road routs of Atlantic Coast Conference programs North Carolina and North Carolina State.
“That combo was as good as we saw at any point during the season,” said Dan Disch, the Tar Heels’ defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach. “They both can give you fits, man — and they did.”
Hardy’s improbable climb began as an overlooked recruit with one Division II scholarship offer out of West Craven, a school running the spread offense about 25 miles southeast of the ECU campus in Vanceboro.
Donnie Kirkpatrick, Hardy’s position coach, said the Pirates needed receivers after Ruffin McNeill took over as head coach in January 2010 and installed the spread. The 6-foot Hardy had played quarterback and receiver, but lacked size or eye-popping speed. The coaches were divided as they compared film of Hardy and another out-of-state receiver so they brought in McNeill to make the call.
McNeill chose Hardy, who arrived that fall and earned a scholarship a year later.
“I’ll say we were working hard on it,” Kirkpatrick said with a chuckle, “But we got a little lucky, because we just about blew it.”
As for Carden, Riley and McNeill had been in contact with the Houston native while they were assistants at Texas Tech before coming to Greenville.
Carden owns the program’s top three single-game passing performances — his career high was 480 yards against Tulane in October — as well as its single-season passing yardage mark of 4,139 yards. He ranked in the top 10 nationally in passing yardage and passing touchdowns last year, and is on pace to set the school’s career record for both categories.
Carden said much of his success started with words of encouragement from Hardy after becoming a starter.
“He was just giving me confidence,” Carden said. “He was like, ‘Hey man, I’ve seen you play. I’ve seen you do it. Just do your thing.'”
Neither player talked much about the records ahead, saying they’re more focused on the Pirates having a strong debut season in the American Athletic Conference.
“They’re certainly very, very in synch,” Riley said. “They’ve got a special relationship, which all great quarterbacks and receivers do.”
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