Published on May 3rd, 2019 | by Hype Editorial0
New Orleans Saints, Justin Hardee, Putting The “special” Back In Special Teams!
New Orleans Saints gunner, Justin Hardee is quickly establishing himself as one of the best special team players in the NFL! He explains how it all came together for him.
There is definitely something in the water in Cleveland, Ohio or maybe it’s just Glenville High School. The high school has produced three standouts from the NFC South champion, New Orleans Saints roster. Receiver, Ted Ginn Jr., special teams ace, Hardee as well as 2018 Defensive Rookie of the Year, Marshon Lattimore. It was also the high school of, comedian, actor and talk show host, Steve Harvey as well. Hardee started his career at the University of Illinois as a wide receiver. He went undrafted in the 2017 draft but was picked up by the Houston Texans. A chance preseason meeting between the New Orleans Saints and Houston Texans would lead to a call from the Saints inquiring about Hardee who would join the team in September 2017. Since, he has been moved to defensive back where he saw his reps increase at that position last year, but his specialty is special teams. It’s not hard to spot #34 during a Saints punt or kickoff because he’s usually the first one down the field and is located wherever the ball is.
I caught up with the Ohio native. We talk about his role on the team, the now infamous no-call in the NFC championship game and much more!
The Hype Magazine: You made some major leaps during last year’s season in terms of your performances. I could see the improvements. How do you feel you performed last year?
Justin Hardee: I felt like I did a pretty decent job. As far as special teams, I feel like I need to make way more plays on kickoff. I’m willing to learn more even though I’m going into my third year, you can always learn. I feel like I did pretty decent, you know what I’m saying. I’m where I need to be.
The Hype Magazine: You resigned with the Saints. It’s great to have you back. What have your time in New Orleans been like?
Justin Hardee: It’s been a blessing. I have family down here and when my family comes down, they enjoy it. We always have a good time. New Orleans as a city is very cultural and that’s something that I can relate to because it’s like that at home. I love New Orleans, man.
The Hype Magazine: I’m sure it helped coming into the league and joining a team that had two home town guys from already on the squad, Ted Ginn Jr. and Marshon Lattimore.
Justin Hardee: Right! It’s like being spoiled because you got an, OG then you got somebody around your age that can understand everything, and they are going through some of the same things with you as well. It’s a blessing for sure.
The Hype Magazine: Congratulations on the new addition. You recently had a baby boy. Does having a kid change your approach to the game at all?
Justin Hardee: I was always the one to go hard, but it definitely lights another fire. I can’t sit here and say it doesn’t change anything because it changes everything. It’s not necessarily about feeding myself, now I have another mouth I gotta feed. So, it has me very excited for the season. I just can’t wait. I feel like everything is just more personal to me now, but I love that though.
The Hype Magazine: You are one of the leagues top gunners and top special teams’ players in general and you talk your talk when you’re on the field. That being said, do you feel like you will have a bullseye on your chest this year?
Justin Hardee: I mean, I had a bullseye on my chest last year. That doesn’t change anything for me because at the end of the day, it all happens between them lines. I’m coming. I don’t know if they are going to come as hard as I am because I know how hard I’m coming. I can’t worry about my opponent; all I can do is be prepared.
The Hype Magazine: As far as recent memory goes, anytime you think of great special team players, in the return game, Brian Mitchell, Devon Hester and Donte Hall comes to mind, but then there were gunners like, Steve Tasker. Do you study great special teamers?
Justin Hardee: One guy who I studied a lot and I actually had the pleasure of meeting was, Matthew Slater [made seven Pro Bowl’s as a special teamer]. When I started off as an undrafted rookie, I was just a hungry young cat just trying to do whatever to make a team. Just trying to learn and grow for my personal benefit. My coach, Larry Izzo… when guys went back to their hotel to go chill and go do whatever, I was determined to be the different guy. I was going to stick around even after meetings because I was going to be the guy to go up there and get a personal meeting with him, so he could know who I am. And I remember he cut on some, Matthew Slater film and it was crazy because… I learned something that day. He was like, “Look at this guy. Look how he just doesn’t give up on a play.” It’s like, he was blocked for a minute and he turned around and just didn’t give up. So, I took that into my game and I just try to make my hustle. I just try to make everything I do; I do at 100%. Also, those game films that I watched from my rookie year, during my time in Houston, during the summer I took it to practice. I was chasing guys all the way down the field. I’m talking, to the point where I was about to pass out. But it all worked out in the long run because I can look back at it because one of the coaches vouched for me when New Orleans called. It was all up to me on what to do when I got here but working so hard and going so hard landed me an opportunity and that’s all I wanted.
The Hype Magazine: Some people are fans of the organization, but they don’t really understand football and especially special teams and your role. To understand that you have to understand the importance of field position and you are one of the best.
Justin Hardee: Oh yeah! I’m trying to be down there every time. I want to help my punter out as well, Thomas Morstead. I feel like he is the best in the league and my goal is to get his balls inside the ten. That’s the real goal. Getting his balls down inside the ten makes him look great, which he already is. So, it’s just us working together hand and hand. For instance, when we were playing against, Pittsburgh, I had a double vice and I beat the double vice and I stepped out of bounds and I touched the ball first even though I shouldn’t have. So, they accepted the penalty, we re-kicked and I got down there again and he hit a great punt and it turned out to be even better field position for us. That was back to back plays, but I just wanted to show my team and my punter that you can count on me.
The Hype Magazine: Do you attribute your success on speed, timing, a knack for finding the football or a combination of all of those things.
Justin Hardee: I would say it’s just a “want to” thing. I want to be the guy to be depended on. Like I tell my guys, if I’m not making a tackle or they getting extra yards, more than they should have, I’m putting it on me. Because I should be there for my team. I definitely want to be that guy for my team. I just put it all on my back. That’s just a personal goal for myself. My standards are very high. I think that’s something that has carried on and helped me out along the way. I just want to get to the ball. I want to be closest to the ball because I feel like I’m going to get there. I just believe in my ability over my opponents. That’s not me being arrogant or anything, that’s just confidence. That’s just from me working hard in practice because I work just as hard in practice as I do during the games. I believe the mindset is what separates me from other gunners. The only reason why I say that is because… see I hate to talk this way, because it may get taken the wrong way, but it’s truthful.
The Hype Magazine: Talk your talk.
Justin Hardee: I just feel like, every time I line up, I know I’m going to win. Before the ball is even snapped, I know I’m going to win. I win in my head before I win on my rep. I believe that’s what separates me and that’s why I do talk all my stuff because I try to work that hard. And at the end of the day, I talk stuff because I feel like that’s the fun part of the game. You’re supposed to get out there and talk. People want to be like statues instead of going out there and having fun. That’s what I do. I go out there and have fun.
The Hype Magazine: You were a receiver in college converted to a cornerback and special teams ace. How important is it to be versatile in today’s game?
Justin Hardee: Yeah! So, I was told, the more you can do, the more valuable you are and the more likely a team will keep you. It was crazy how I actually ended up playing, DB. The only reason they put me there is because I had a pretty good game against the Saints when I was a rookie with the Texans. They saw that I could tackle, and they were like, “Let’s just give him a try.” I was actually going to switch back to receiver, but my defensive back coach said, “Nah! He staying right here,” and I just fell in love with defensive back. I thank him so much all the time because, DB is me. I’m glad… special teams is just the start of my career. I’m going to always do special teams. I want to always be a gunner, but eventually I definitely want to take it to the next level at defensive back, but it’s a process. It’s not something that happens overnight. So, my goal right now is to become the best special teams’ player in the NFL. In the process I know I will become a great defensive back because I’m going to work that hard at it. I’m going to study and asks questions. I’m not one who is shy to ask questions to anybody. I don’t care if you’re younger or older. I’m not embarrassed at all. It’s all a fun process. It’s something that you have to stay patient with because it doesn’t happen overnight. It may take me another four to five years to become the elite defensive back that I want to be, but once I become that elite defensive back, I’m pretty sure that I’m going to look back at this process and appreciate it so much more.
The Hype Magazine: How has it been to learn from a great like, Aaron Glenn and what has he meant to your career?
Justin Hardee: Man… I believe that, Aaron Glenn is the best at what he does. I truly vouch for him. I will bet that he is the best defensive backs coach in the league. He is a guy who has 15-years of game time experience and he has the mind of a player already. I would say that he is the best positions coach that I have ever had period because this is a man, that took a guy who was playing receiver going forward and he took every little step with me. He didn’t just throw me in the fire and say, “Here, go back pedal.” We started off with baby steps. I appreciate that guy so much. He just don’t know. He changed my life and I tell him that all the time. I tell him he changed my life by switching my position and I appreciate that. That put me in position to win I believe.
The Hype Magazine: The season ended on a very bitter note. Do you feel like that “no-call” brought the chemistry of the team closer and if so in what ways?
Justin Hardee: One thing, now we know we can’t put it in the ref’s hands. This definitely makes us closer as a team because now we know we’re all we got. We know what’s ahead of us. We have been through the “Minneapolis Miracle,” to the “No-Call.” I just feel like now we know it’s time. It’s really time. It should’ve been time last year. We should have had our opportunity, but it is what it is at this point.
The Hype Magazine: I feel like the Saints is the most copied team in the league and you guys have one of the most infectious locker rooms. A prime example is the, Dez Bryant situation. He comes in, gets injured and wasn’t able to contribute to the team, yet, when guys scored touchdowns in that following game, you see them throwing up the “X” for Dez. It definitely has that family feel in that locker room.
Justin Hardee: True story. It was unfortunate what happened to, Dez. That locker room is so special. A lot of guys who have grown over the years. Even me coming in my rookie year. They welcomed me with open arms like I was a brother already. Even though I knew some guys on the team, I didn’t know 98% of the guys and it didn’t feel like I didn’t know them. We built a family and I love that team. People will say that they started this or did this first, but in reality, we know what’s going on.
Thr Hype Magazine: It’s been a pleasure talking to you, my man and I want to wish you the best of luck both on and off the field. Is there anything else you would like to add before I let you go?
Justin Hardee: Who Dat, man! To all the “Who Dat Nation” I’m just glad I get another for sure year with you all. Hopefully it’s more, God willing. I want to thank, God for everything and I can’t wait for the season. Let’s go get em!
By Percy Crawford