Coming off a record setting college career in a small North Carolina football program, he “upped his stock with a good postseason but isn’t a real speedster, either.” The “5’11 wide receiver who plays taller,” “turned out to be faster than anyone thought.” “Not a burner,” but he did run a “4.56 at the combine.” He’s a “good possession catcher” and a “steady player.”
Most would say this is a fair description of ECU’s Justin Hardy. The dig is that this isn’t Hardy’s draft profile, but instead the 1990 profile of then little known, but accomplished, wide receiver Ricky Proehl.
The similarities between Proehl’s 1990 draft profile and Justin Hardy’s today are striking, and likely not lost on Proehl, who is now the Carolina Panthers’ wide receivers coach. Hardy, who weighed in at 5’10, 192 lbs, ran a 4.56 at the 2015 combine. He’s faster than most thought, and he a great pass catcher and steady player who now holds the all-time FBS reception record.
Parallels Run Deeper
Drafted by the Phoenix Cardinals in the 3rd round and the #58 overall pick, Proehl wasn’t a highly touted prospect. He came into the league somewhat unknown and with a chip on his shoulder. Bursting onto the scene his rookie season, Proehl defended “That`s the story of my life, I’ve always been overshadowed, overlooked, whatever you want to call it. It doesn`t bother me anymore. High school, college, I was always the little guy who had to prove
himself. When I was drafted here, a lot of people thought I wasn`t worth it (a third-round pick). They were asking, Who the hell is this guy?”
People also wondered who the hell Hardy was just four years ago when he walked onto East Carolina’s practice squad in 2011. He hadn’t received any any offers from D-1 schools, even though his high school coach practically begged college scouts to give Hardy a shot. Overlooked, Hardy gambled on a program with a new coaching staff, and the bet paid off. It was clear immediately to both his teammates and the coaching staff, he was special. “When you see it, you see it,” Hardy’s offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley noted. “It was just an easy, simple catching drill.” Sometimes you just see something with guys. Not like it was hard to see, like I’m some visionary, none of that. It was just very obvious he had some big-league skills.”
Like Proehl, doubts that Hardy could play at the next level fueled his drive. “You’ve always got to remember that. I was not recruited coming out of high school. I’ve got to have that chip on my shoulder,” he said defiantly. “I need to prove to them why they should have recruited me.” Doubts similar to those Hardy faced coming out of high school still loom as many question his ability to transition to the next level. Hardy, however, confidently dismisses critics who suggest his collegiate success stemmed from the offensive system or because of inferior opposition in Conference USA and AAC, stating, “Everybody is entitled to their own opinion. I know what I can do, and people know what I can do. Numbers don’t lie, so I’ll leave it at that.”
This attitude is particularly reminiscent of Proehl’s coming into the league in 1990, who then sharply remarked, “You can`t let those raps bother you. If you do, you`ll never survive. I just took the attitude, hey, I'm gonna prove (the critics) wrong. That's what I try to do every week.”
In an interview with CarolinaCatChronicles.com, Hardy’s college wide receiver coach Donnie Kirkpatrick suggested Hardy feeds off of this underdog role, stating, “he totally plays with a chip on his shoulder, maybe he manufactures that a bit.” What Coach Kirkpatrick stated complicates this matter is that he is a “very confident man, and that he really does believe in his ability to play and to play at any level.” “At the same time he totally plays with a chip on his shoulder.”
There are more similarities than just draft profiles or sizable chips on these two’s shoulders. The chips, and really the successes of these two players, manifest from a deeper drive, a deeper determination that both possess. There’s an undeniable work ethic that Proehl carried in the past and Hardy carries currently.
When asked about players with a memorable work ethic, former Panthers linebacker, Will Witherspoon, unhesitatingly pointed to Proehl. Witherspoon immediately honed in on what separated Proehl from the pack, the confluence of talent and determination.
Proehl recently spoke to this quality being the trait he wants most players, remarking, “I just want a guy that is smart, that is willing to learn, can adapt, and make just make football plays….sometimes you're looking for size and speed...but at the end of the day is he productive? Is he accountable and reliable?” Proehl emphasized in this same radio interview the importance of the mental side of the game, citing this being the greatest challenge for college kids coming to the pros. They [current players] can “run” he said, suggesting it isn’t the speed or athleticism that is lacking, but that it’s the complexity of pro game that is most challenging. Proehl was a heady , hard working player, who wants to coach heady, hard workers.
Hardy’s measurables are solid, but it’s his work ethic and football IQ that is most exceptional. His wide receiver coach elaborated, stating, “he’s always talking football, always asking me what can I do better, how you think I did yesterday, and always wanting to find a way to be better.” He’s just a “a football guy,” Kirkpatrick stated, noting if “he was a basketball player he’d be called a gym rat.” “He’s the type of guy,” he argued, “will make a coach be glad he works there.” “Nobody is ever going to want him to leave,” Kirkpatrick stated. “From the owner, especially to the quarterback, and everybody on that team,” he concluded, “will always want him back.” “He’ll never wear his welcome out. They’ll want him to stay and work for that organization when he does have to finally hang up his cleats.”
“From a scouting standpoint, from a general manager standpoint, they're all looking for the perfect guy on paper, and sometimes they’re not out there,” Proehl recently noted. “I try not to get into that trap.” Proehl wasn’t that “perfect guy” on paper, but he felt as if he “knew ball.”
Some guys just “know ball” as Proehl did. The game comes easy, not only because they are talented, but because they understand it and work hard at it. Hardy’s receiver coach believes “his play speaks for itself on the field with his numbers, but it goes way beyond just that he caught a million balls for us and a lot of yards, and a lot of touchdowns. He’s a complete player.” “He could teach the game right now,” Coach Kirkpatrick stated. “If I became a head coach tomorrow,” he glowed, “I’d try to hire him to be the receiver coach.”
The Inside Tip
The similarities between Proehl and Hardy are simply undeniable. Proehl, a third round pick, lasted 17 years in the league by packing his lunch, working hard, and playing smart. That type of success comes from something beyond physical talent. It derives from the union of talent, determination, and dedication. Hardy’s success has been built upon these characteristics. “His best football is still ahead of him,’ Kirkpatrick believes, because “he is talented, but he’s a talented hard working guy.” Hardy is what Kirkpatrick describes as the “complete player” because he settles for nothing less, and when he doesn’t achieve it, he simply works harder.
Hardy is the type of guy Proehl wants because he understands him, and he believes in him, because he was him.
The Carolina Panthers pick #57 in the upcoming draft. In 1990, the Cardinals drafted Proehl #58 overall. Few outside of North Carolina knew who he was, and nobody thought he would end up the league's leading rookie pass-catcher, let alone a 17-year old, multiple Super Bowl Champion. He was a 3rd rounder then, and while Carolina’s #57 is now a 2nd round pick, the nationally acclaimed Hardy’s stock has climbed over the past months. Originally projected as a 5th round pick, Hardy’s name is now more associated with the 3rd and 4th rounds. Nobody knows where he will go, but Ricky Proehl has to know where he belongs. Next week will show if this insider knowledge prompts the Panthers to keeping this Backyard Baller in Carolina.
By the Professor, aka Tony Dunn
Follow him on Twitter @Cat_Chronicles
Note: Special thanks to ECU Assistant Head Coach, Donnie Kirkpatrick, for taking the time to discuss Justin Hardy's career with CarolinaCatChronicles.com. The full interview with Kirkpatrick can be found below. Also, NFL draft coverage was especially sparse in 1990. It took scouring the newspaper archives for snippets of commentary on Ricky Proehl to put together the opening draft profile. You can find those sources below as well.