Panthers Linebacker Group Just Got Bigger

If you are an East Carolina Pirate, you know and love Zeek Bigger.  He led the team in tackles in 2014 and 2015. His name alone sparks an excitement that was missing from last year's Pirates team. The ECU linebacker didn't get an invite to the combine after his senior year nor workout invitations from a pro organization in 2016. Bigger, however, wasn't going to let that adversity make him feel small. He played in a Spring Developmental League last season and attended Panther's rookie minicamp tryouts in April. 

Today, the Panthers signed Bigger to the 90-man roster. It's a big day for Zeek and one step closer to bigger days ahead. 

Bigger's College Stats

Defense & Fumbles Table
Tackles Def Int Fumbles
Year School Conf Class Pos G Solo Ast Tot Loss Sk Int Yds Avg TD PD FR Yds TD FF
*2012East CarolinaCUSAFRLB1399180.00.0
*2013East CarolinaCUSASOLB123938775.02.012929.00500
*2014East CarolinaAmericanJRLB1366741403.50.026834.01410
2015East CarolinaAmericanSRLB125147986.51.5000100
CareerEast Carolina16516833315.03.539732.311010
Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 5/30/2017.

Video: C3 One-On-One With ECU WR Zay Jones

Video: C3 One-On-One With ECU WR Zay Jones

I was able to sit down with ECU star receiver Zay Jones before his autograph signing at Sup Dogs in Greenville, NC benefiting the Aces For Autism Foundation. I asked him a few quick questions about his recent experiences and confirmed the private workout he had earlier this week at ECU with Carolina Panthers coaches.

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Panthers Have Inside Tip on ECU's Justin Hardy

Panthers Have Inside Tip on ECU's Justin Hardy

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.” 

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Countdown to Justin Hardy: Another Day at the Office

He makes it look easy, effortless even.

Justin Hardy hasn't really dominated any one game this season--until today. He's been important, but he hasn't been the only weapon on the ECU Pirates' high-powered offense. Hardy took over today, however, reminding that he's the Pirates' main weapon. Reigning in 8 catches for 120 and 3 TDs, he also continued his march toward breaking the FBS all-time reception record held by Oklahoma’s Ryan Broyles (346).  He's just 46 receptions away.

An accomplishment noteworthy under any circumstance, it is particularly impressive under Hardy's. From his freshman year, he's show he's a big-time talent that went overlooked. Walking on at ECU, he hauled in 64 catches for 668 yards as a freshman. Last season, Hardy registered a stunning 113 receptions for 1284 yards. His pace was a little behind, but today's performance showed it won't be by much.  Saturday's seem to be just another day at the office for Hardy.

How has he done it and how could he contribute to the +Carolina Panthers? He's done it through intelligent route running, insane hands, and football instinct. He can just play.

Hardy works man-coverage well and the zone better. His routes are deceptive and efficient. He never looks to be over-exerting himself. He's economic. He can sit down softly in the zone, providing a reliable target for the quarterback, or he can go and get the ball one-on-one. Just look at these hands:

Did I mention he returns punts as well? He doesn't blow them back for TDs (never took one to the house), but he's reliable and comfortable when opposing teams are bearing down.

Compliment this intelligent, polished receiver to Kelvin Benjamin and hopefully a speedster that can take the top off, and the Panthers offense could cook.  Let's keep this "Bayard Baller" home in the Carolinas.

Follow this golden-gloved prospect at  Visit the Countdown 2 Justin Hardy page.

Justin Hardy Watch: ECU vs Virginia Tech

Coming off a tough loss to the +South Carolina Gamecocks, the ECU Pirates faced another tough road challenge in Blacksburg against +Virginia Tech.   This time, Justin Hardy matched up against a top-rate secondary led by sophomore standout Kendall Fuller. The "Man with the Golden Gloves" only showed up for the 1st half, registering 4 receptions for 47 yards.  The Pirates exploded in the 1st quarter, putting up 21 on big plays through the air.  Hardy was having a solid half, even against the tough corner, but the "Man with Golden Gloves,"disappeared into the locker room at half-time and didn't return.  Justin Hardy came back, but he had exchanged his gold gloves for a pair of purple and black. There seemed to be some psychological effect with this change as the Pirates offense simply fell asleep.  Usually one would think that Hardy disappeared, but this was really more a result of poor quarterback play and offensive play calling.  The Pirate quarterback finished 23/47, missing Hardy twice in the second half.  Carden rediscovered his mojo in a last minute drive to win to end a 3 quarter scoring drought.

This wasn't a particularly standout game for Hardy. Some of that should be attributed to the defensive play of Kendell Fuller.  Most of this, however, was simply because of poor play by ECU.  Hardy didn't seem to be the root of the problem.

What did stand out then?  Hardy made a savvy play in the 1st quarter on 2nd and 3 on a deep shot, where he got away with an offensive pass interference and drew a defensive pass interference on Kyle Fuller.  Both guys were hand-fighting down the sideline with the ball in the air.  Seeing exactly where the official was ahead, Hardy tugged the back of Fuller's jersey with his left hand throwing Fuller off balance a bit.  It drew enough contact for the officiating to call interference on Hardy's route.  Looking closely at the play, Hardy should have been flagged.

One of the keys to Hardy's game are the little nuances that pay big dividends. The "Man with the Golden Gloves" is a smart receiver.  C3 described him as cerebral in Week 1, and it continues to show with this small play that eventually resulted in a touchdown for the Pirates.  Another week and another showing that Hardy would be a smart addition to the +Carolina Panthers in 2015.

Backyard Baller: ECU's Justin Hardy

Panther Nation give a warm welcome for C3's newest contributor, Gerin Honeycutt, a journalism major from East Carolina University.  Most important, however, this up and coming sports journalist is one of us, a die hard Panther fan!  Give it up for the newest member of the Crew and leave a comment for his first story! 

Don’t beat yourself up Panther fans, your next great wide receiver could be right under your nose. Well, 250 miles east under your nose at East Carolina University. Greenville, North Carolina is where NFL recruiters have discovered what two years ago would have been considered a “diamond in the rough.” Enter current ECU Wide Receiver/Punt Returner Justin Hardy. After a jaw dropping sixty-four reception, 658 yard, six touchdown and Conference USA All-Freshman team campaign, Hardy has done nothing but amass two seasons of inspired offensive production—202   receptions and 2,389 yards, averaging over a first down every time he catches the ball and let’s not forget those nineteen touchdowns. Consistent play like this has elevated the 6’1 190 lb Hardy off the list of NFL possible gems and onto a lot of NFL recruiter’s top wide receiver’s board for the 2015 draft.

Hardy catching TD on Panther CB Melvin White
The two time first team All-Conference selection does not shy away from competition either. If there are any Pirate readers out there, you guys know that ECU, season after season, always plays one of the hardest non-conference schedules of any low-tier FBS school. Let that not be a knock to ECU, who is set to start their first year in the newly settled American Conference this year. Today’s fans, however, seem more critical of schools not matched with a powerful conference’s logo, such as the SEC, B1G 10, ACC, and PAC-12. Many players underestimate talent found at smaller market colleges.  Just because a player didn’t come out of a large magnate high school or enter into a large market college program doesn’t mean that there isn’t top level talent at the smaller market schools.  The talent may be less acclaimed, but Hardy shows it’s there and that they can compete at the highest levels.

Hardy battled this irritating situation from day one, where his only scholarship offer was from Fayetteville State.  Hardy to eventually choose to walk on at ECU with the hopes of earning a scholarship instead. Hardy spent his first year as a redshirt trying to make a name for himself by splitting time at quarterback and wide receiver on the scout team. He’s worked, fought, and scrapped from day one.  It’s paid off at the collegiate level where he has become the top offensive option for the ECU Pirates. His work isn’t over yet though. Hardy has one last season at ECU to prove to critical NFL scouts that he is NFL ready.  What’s scary about this is that he Hardy only has three years of experience and still has a full season to work on this craft. If he keeps pace with his improvement and dominance to this point, he could wind up being a national standout and a favorite among NFL scouts.  

I recently spoke Hardy’s former teammate and ECU receiver, Andrew Bodenheimer. He quickly emphasized Hardy’s high football IQ, stating “If you put Hardy with a set of NFL coaches, he has potential to be one of the more dangerous wide receivers in the league.” From what I’ve seen on film, the only downside to Hardy is his knack to push himself too hard causing him sometimes to make plays harder on himself than they should be. Occasionally, you’ll see Hardy’s fundamentals slip in the process. NFL scouts know this is an easy fix that can be coached out by even a sub-par wide receiver coach.

Another unsung attribute to add to Hardy’s skill set is his impressive blocking ability. He constantly finds a way to get into the chest of safeties and linebackers who trump him in size, yet his technique is so smooth he manages to win the higher percentage of those battles. He’s also tallied a good amount of crack backs, and every fan loves a good crack back! Hardy’s willingness to block downfield is an attribute cherished by the Carolina Panthers.  Every receiver they have brought in this offseason is willing to get on a defender in support of the run-game.  Hardy would fit right in the Carolina Culture.

While all of these qualities help chisel Hardy’s sculpture, none help set him apart from other receivers more than his elite catching and playmaking abilities. With disproportionately humongous hands, Hardy is basically a wide receiver equipped with two catcher’s mitts, enabling him to catch anything in his area code. Let’s just say he’s no Brandon Lafell if that helps boost any Panther fan’s confidence. Hardy has made numerous circus catches throughout his career, many over top-tier defensive backs. The scariest part about Hardy’s game is his Dante Hall-like agility when he has the ball in the open field. Hardy even averaged nearly nine yards a punt return last year, showing he is an effective special teams’ contributor.

The young star has impressively been able to amass such numbers when being the focus of opposing defenses as well.  Facing double teams, game after game, Hardy has still put up monster numbers. Lincoln Riley, ECU’s Offensive Coordinator, loved putting Hardy in sets that isolated him on one side of the field. I’m sure he didn’t mind Hardy’s versatility to work the slot either.

Hardy’s speed isn’t out of this world.  He will probably clock in the mid to high 4.5s when we do see an official time.  Being a straight burner isn’t his game though.  Hardy has that rare skill set that translates in the NFL just as much as speed does.  He is fearless, hardworking, has crazy hands, and has playmaking ability.  We’ve seen the fast guys, Ted Ginn and Hayward-Bay that had the speed, but lacked the tools.  Hardy has better than average speed and a skill set that makes scouts drool.

Hardy is kind of a new aged Hakeem Nicks minus the injuries, but adding the voluntary team activities. Any team, not just the Panthers, would be fortunate to have this guy. To me however, the silky smooth Hardy looks like the perfect piece beside Kelvin Benjamin to load Cam up with for the future. Tune in this year to Justin Hardy folks.  After his opener against North Carolina Central, he and his Pirates take on the South Carolina Gamecocks on ESPN 2, Saturday September, 6th at  7 P.M. I guarantee you the show will not disappoint. S o in the words of the six-time pro bowler Terrell Owens, “Get your popcorn ready.”

By Gerin Honeycutt