When the 2016 Rookie Club first arrived in Flowery Branch, they went through one of the many rites of passage when beginning the journey of becoming a Falcon. They're brought into the team meeting room and they're introduced to longtime special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong — known for his strong, in-your-face personality that captured the attention of fans nationwide during the Falcons' appearance on HBO's Hard Knocks two years ago.
As the rookies settled in, Armstrong remained quiet and just pressed play as a large video screen lit up. Projected on the screen was now-second-year wideout Justin Hardy. Highlight after highlight was shown of Hardy at East Carolina, catching passes, scoring touchdowns, and eventually setting a new FBS record for career receptions.
Impressive as those clips were, Armstrong's video then switched to Hardy in a Falcons uniform. He wasn't running routes or catching passes or coming close to setting records; instead, he was running downfield with everything he had in him to cover kicks on special teams.
"I said, 'This is the evolution of your role,' " Armstrong said of the message he shared with rookies following the video. "Everyone wants to be Jerry Rice, but sometimes you have to start somewhere else."
And that's exactly how Hardy approached his first year with the Falcons.
Hardy had never studied a playbook before he was drafted, so Atlanta's coaching staff knew there would need to be a lengthy adjustment period. For seven weeks of the regular season, Hardy was inactive. But come Week 8, things dramatically changed for him, and it all started with his debut on special teams.
"Basically, I realized there was no offense or defense — it was just football," Hardy said. "Whatever I had to do to get back to playing football, I was trying to do whatever I could to get back on the field."
In just nine games for Atlanta, Hardy was able to move his way up the depth chart, so much so that he's entering the 2016 season as the frontrunner for the No. 3 receiver spot.
The quick success, however, didn't come as a surprise to Hardy's teammates. Pro Bowl fullback Patrick DiMarco knows exactly how Hardy was able to maneuver it, because it's quite similar to his path.
"It's how you make it in this league," DiMarco said of embracing special teams early in your career. "You find your role on special teams, you start opening eyes in meeting rooms and making plays on special teams and then, sooner than later, your snaps on offense and defense are going to pick up.
"Hardy has that mentality that no one is going to prove him wrong and that's why he's been able to do what he's done. He's a go-getter, whatever coaches ask of him, he's going to do it and give it all he's got."
In order to play on Armstrong's unit, a player must do two things: Run and hit. Everything in Atlanta's system is predicated on that core philosophy, starting with special teams.
The minute Hardy started running and hitting, the offensive snaps started to come.
"Once I started playing special teams, that's when I started getting more reps on offense," Hardy said. "You earn the respect and trust of your teammates and coaches [by] playing special teams."
Hardy's knack for catching the football already puts him in a special category, but his grit and determination could be what separates him for the rest.
Just ask Armstrong, who saw the on-field potential long before Hardy entered the offensive huddle.
"He's a winner," Armstrong said. "That's what he is."