By JOHN WAWROW
AP Sports Writer
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- When James Hardy says he'd like to be fellow Buffalo Bills receiver Lee Evans' little brother, he's referring to age, not size.
The distinction is quite apparent because, at 6-foot-5 and change, there's nothing small about Hardy, the Bills' rookie second-round pick out of Indiana.
"He's big," coach Dick Jauron said Friday, after the team opened a three-day rookie minicamp. "And we like big."
The only thing bigger as far as Jauron is concerned might be the expectations the Bills have of Hardy. They're counting on him to make an immediate impact on what's been a popgun offense by providing a secondary threat opposite Evans.
"He's a 6-foot-5 receiver, and we've got to score," Jauron said, referring to an offense that produced 20 touchdowns last year -- a franchise low in a 16-game season. "Hopefully, he'll provide us with a lot more opportunity to score and make more plays, the plays that we need."
Hardy is aware of the Bills' needs and understands the best way to meet them begins with leaning on Evans, who has four more years of NFL experience.
"This is a great opportunity," Hardy said. "But I'm not coming in thinking I'm going to get the starting job. I want to come in and work extremely hard, like Lee Evans, sort of be his little brother, and have him guide me through this."
Hardy is the tallest receiver the Bills ever drafted and provides an immediate presence to what was one of the shortest receiving corps in the league last season. It's a group, following Peerless Price's season-ending neck injury in early October, whose tallest members were Evans and Josh Reed, at 5-foot-10, and rounded out by Roscoe Parrish, who was generously listed at 5-9.
It didn't help that Reed and Parrish were mostly used in the slot, making it easier for opposing defenses to cheat double-coverage toward Evans, whose numbers dropped despite leading the team with 849 yards receiving and five touchdowns.
With Hardy, the Bills see the potential to open up their passing attack.
Quick on his feet for a player his size, Hardy set single-season school records as a junior last year with 79 catches for 1,125 yards and 16 touchdowns. For his career, Hardy's 36 touchdowns were third-most in Big 10 Conference history, behind only Braylon Edwards (39) and Anthony Carter (37), who achieved their totals over four years.
And not all of Hardy's touchdowns came with him merely out-jumping opponents in the end zone.
As he showed during his first day of practice, Hardy has good hands to catch the ball over the middle and is able to bend down and reach back for passes on quick outs along the sideline as well.
"He can bend for a big man," first-year offensive coordinator Turk Schonert said. "He can change direction. He can run all the routes. He's just not a guy that you tell to just run deep and throw the ball up to him. That's not what he's about."
Hardy's athleticism is the result of growing up a two-sport athlete, splitting time between basketball and football. Coming out of high school, Hardy said he had more than 120 scholarship offers to play basketball, including Connecticut, Illinois and Georgia Tech.
He settled on football in part because his height was more unique to the sport. The experience of battling for loose balls on the court did translate to the gridiron.
"I feel with the way I maneuver my body over defenders, it's sort of like a box out or like you're going to get an alley-oop," Hardy said. "For the most part, it's just eyeball contact. You just want to get up there and grab the ball."
Hardy comes from a hard-scrabble background in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He spent part of his childhood sleeping on an air mattress in an uncle's living room after his father was jailed following a drug conviction.
With a start like that, playing in the NFL doesn't seem difficult.
"My whole life has really been about pressure," Hardy said. "I like pressure. It makes me work a lot harder. And especially with 72,000 fans cheering us one, I'll do everything in my power to get Buffalo to the playoffs."
Now that would be big.