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John DeShazier: Saints special teamer Justin Hardee knew his hard work was going to pay off

Posted Nov 8, 2017

Rookie came up with block-and-score vs. Bucs

Justin Hardee wasn’t drafted, which is nowhere near the same as saying he wasn’t wanted.

In fact, five days after he was waived by the Houston Texans, with whom the New Orleans Saints held joint practices prior to the Saints-Texans preseason game Aug. 26, the Saints signed the defensive back to their practice squad. And 16 days after that, on Sept. 23 – the day before New Orleans played its third game of the season, at Carolina – Hardee was added to the active roster.

All he has done since is make a series of standout special teams plays, the last of which had a significant impact on Hardee joining the Saints’ parade of rookie honorees this season, as he was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his blocked punt and touchdown against Tampa Bay in a 30-10 victory.

Cornerback Marshon Lattimore, the first of the Saints’  two first-round picks, was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for October, and running back Alvin Kamara, the first of three third-round picks, was named Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week after the Miami game in Week 4.

“It means the world to me,” Hardee said. “It’s work. I just put my head down and work. I’m not one of those guys who’s going to peak early. I’m one of those guys who’s got to put his head down and work, do some stuff behind closed doors and it’ll pay off eventually. You just never know when.

“The NFC Special Teams Player of the Week, I will definitely give that to the other 10 guys as well. Because without them I wouldn’t have gotten that award.”

Definitely, he wouldn’t have gotten it if he hadn’t produced a surprise block-and-score.

With the Buccaneers set to punt from their 28-yard line following a 5-yard penalty for a false start, Hardee crashed the crease between long snapper Garrison Sanborn and the right guard, gained inside leverage on the guard and almost was in the lap of punter Bryan Anger before Anger could finish his steps.

Hardee blocked the punt, recovered it on a perfect bounce at the 7 and ran into the end zone for a touchdown and 9-0 Saints lead, helping propel New Orleans (6-2) to its sixth straight win.

“We saw it in film,” Hardee said. “Just preparation, just watching film and studying and stuff. We were going over certain techniques, so I knew that there was definitely going to be an opportunity. With them taking a five-yard penalty, that actually helped me out because we ended up calling a different play, which probably made things pretty different for them.

“I actually almost overran it. It hit my forearm. I didn’t even hit it with my hands. It was kind of crazy, then it took the bounce and came right to me. I was like, ‘Wow.’ That was just God sending me a blessing.”

It was the latest fortuitous occurrence for the former college receiver, whom the Saints love in his current role.

“He brings some juice and some energy,” Coach Sean Payton said. “We saw him with Houston during the preseason, practicing with them. Fortunately, we were able to put him on our roster. He’s played both receiver and corner in high school, and then he went and played receiver at Illinois, and we’ve got him working with the (defensive backs).

“He’s one of those guys that comes to work and gives you great effort. A play like that the other day was significant because it wasn’t a designed block, it was actually more of a return. It’s one guy really working his technique and it’s a huge play in a game like that.”

Hardee said hard work is the only way he knows how to go about his business.

“Attitude. Effort. Heart,” he said. “You don’t really need all the tools, you don’t need to be the fastest guy. Of course, you have to be tough. (But) you have to have that grit, you’ve got to have that want-to, you have to have that go-get-it. Some guys just want to play offense or defense. I know my role on this team and I’m willing to help my team do whatever to win.

“Keep that dog in you. No matter where you’re at (position-wise), work hard – that’s first and foremost. Second, it’s the attitude. Attitude will take you so far. That’s what people don’t realize, it’s the attitude and the effort. With those two things, I feel like you can be in my position.

“I talked to a guy for an interview (Tuesday), he told me, ‘I didn’t think you would be in the NFL.’ I laughed. I knew I was going to be here because I work that hard. And that’s not me being arrogant or cocky or anything like that. It was just that, I legit put in the work. On my off days, I’m in the gym. I was catching balls every day, all that type of stuff. So I knew it was going to pay off eventually, I just didn’t know when.”

FAIRER WINDS FOR BREES: As is customary during the season, quarterback Drew Brees addressed the media Wednesday afternoon. Brees noted the atmospheric difference for a 6-2 team, rather than one that is 4-4 at midseason, which has been the Saints’ record after eight games the previous three years.

“I love the competitive nature that has been cultivated here and the way the guys enjoy being around each other, the way they push one another,” he said. “We know when it’s time to work, we know when it’s time to have a good time.

“I’m such a routine-oriented guy that I get caught up in that all week long, but I have after games tried to look around and enjoy the roses a little bit. Because it’s fun to win. It’s fun to see guys excited, it’s fun to get back on that plane from a road trip after a great win and be able to celebrate that with your teammates. It’s a great feeling, I hope to keep it going.”

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