East Carolina senior quarterback Shane Carden began as a scout-team quarterback. Senior wide receiver Justin Hardy started out as a seldom-used receiver.
Hardy was a walk-on with the Pirates and Carden received the last scholarship just a few days before signing day.
The two have since developed into one of the leading duos in college football and the FBS.
This is one of the characteristics that make ECU’s offense dangerous, and USF coach Willie Taggart has taken note of it.
“They’re the best scramble team in the country,” Taggart said. “They get a lot of explosive plays because the receivers react when their stud is in trouble.”
ECU is reaping the benefits of sticking with their two unheralded players, as the No. 19 Pirates are the highest ranked non-power-five program in the nation.
Carden and Hardy established a bond their freshman year that is still growing as their success continues.
“We were on scout team together our freshman year and my first reaction was: this guy is one hell of a receiver,” Carden said. “He was doing some things I hadn’t really seen before and when I found out he was a walk-on, that shocked me. Being two underrated guys, it became a pretty close bond.”
The two of them began building a rapport during the offseason. When football practices were less frequent, Hardy said they would go to the practice fields and work through routes, building confidence in one another.
Being in tune with one another is the main part of any quarterback-receiver relationship, a characteristic mastered by Carden and Hardy. The Pirates have been able to capitalize on broken plays, which has been partially due to trust in each other.
“When plays break down, we’ve played together long enough that he’s inside my head and knows what I’m seeing, so I feel confident that he’s going to be where I need him to be,” Carden said.
In their three years at ECU, Carden and Hardy have rewritten the ECU record books.
Carden became the school’s all-time leader in passing yards (9,134), completions (1,181) and touchdowns (71) this year and has become a dark horse for the coveted Heisman trophy.
“He’s a great quarterback,” USF sophomore defensive back Johnny Ward said. “Before he breaks the huddle, he already knows his reads and who he’s going to and gets rid of the ball really quick … He’s the best quarterback we will face all season.”
Hardy has followed suit and is now the all-time leader in receptions (303), yards (3,526), and touchdowns (30). He also ranks eighth on the NCAA all-time receptions list.
Even with all of the records, Carden said his receiver stays humble.
“I’ve never heard once from the sideline that he needs the ball more or that he was open,” Carden said. “I’ll come to him on the sideline and ask him what he’s seeing and he’ll inform me how the corners are playing, inside and out.”
Hardy, who has caught at least two catches in every game of his career, also has some insight into what it takes to play quarterback, as he played the position in his senior season at West Craven High School.
“I played one year at quarterback in a (spread offense) in high school, so coming (to ECU), which runs the spread, it allowed me to understand where I needed to be in this offense,” Hardy said.
This skill set has played a role in the Pirates’ offense, as Hardy has completed four passes for 147 yards and two touchdowns in his career.
“I think his time at quarterback gives him an advantage,” Carden said. “It allows him to be able to think like me and know what I’m seeing instead of just seeing what a receiver would see.”
The close relationship that is seen on the field isn’t any different from the one off the field.
“Our relationship has made the last three years that much easier and I consider him a brother,” Carden said. “Our families are really close and this is a relationship I expect to have the rest of my life.”
With the stresses of being the face of a program, the duo finds it helps to find time outside the game to unwind.
“We go out to eat, chill at his house, and just do things to get away from football and have a little down time. We need that,” Hardy said. “But when we get back, it’s all business.”
Riding on the backs of these two stars, ECU has brought itself into the national spotlight. Coach Ruffin McNeill took over the program when former coach Skip Holtz left for USF, and has since been able to build the program up.
“When coach Ruffin got here five years ago, it was a different atmosphere,” Carden said. “It took him a while to create that family atmosphere and get the guys he wanted and he’s really built this program up. We have so much depth at receiver and running back and O-line that have allowed us to be able to do all of these things since I’ve been here.”
The Pirates have only lost one game this season, against South Carolina, which was ranked No. 21 at the time. With a 70-point statement win over UNC in Week 4, ECU has proven they have the firepower to put up big numbers.
“I give no credit to myself,” Hardy said. “I have to give credit to the team. Without them, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. Everybody’s doing their duty, doing their job, and it’s making a lot of good things happen.”
USF will face the Carden-and-Hardy-led Pirates at Raymond James Stadium for the Bulls’ Homecoming game Saturday. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on ESPNU.