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September 2, 2009

Healthy and happy, Hardy ready to create havoc

Greg Hardy is a consensus preseason All-SEC selection.

He was named to Playboy's preseason All-America team and is listed by Lindy's as the nation's sixth-best defensive end.

Hardy has accumulated 21 quarterback sacks in his college career and is widely regarded as one of the most dangerous players in college football.

Despite all of that, Hardy has rarely been a starter. So on Monday, when Hardy was listed as a co-starter with Kentrell Lockett on No. 8 Ole Miss' depth chart, it was significant -- in a number of ways.

"I haven't really just started since I've been here," said Hardy, who has played in 31 games and started just 13 in his three-year career at Ole Miss. "I've had success, I think, personally. I don't know about media or the world, but if I'm having fun, we're winning and I'm getting a little impact made, I'm fine.

"I don't worry about who's first, who's second. As long as I get in the game, make my impact and we win, I'm 100 percent OK with that."

While Hardy downplayed the starting assignment for the Rebels' Sunday season opener at Memphis, Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said it's a sign that Hardy's bothersome right foot is getting stronger by the day and that Hardy's attitude has gone through a renaissance of its own.

"His attitude has just been completely changed since January," Nutt said. "He's very committed. He's gone through surgery and different things. I've just been real proud of the way he's attacked meetings, practices and the whole bit. I'm looking forward to see him play this year -- and more than four games."

Fairly or not, Hardy has developed a reputation over the years for being, well, different. The 6-foot-4, 272-pound senior from Millington, Tenn., started nine games as a freshman, recording 49 tackles and three sacks, adding a 23-yard touchdown reception against Mississippi State and then playing in 15 games for Ole Miss' basketball team.

Then injuries and off-the-field issues interrupted what appeared to be the makings of a legendary career. In 2007, Hardy had 63 tackles and 10 sacks despite playing with nagging injuries to his quadriceps, ankle and lower back. The season was marred, however, when Hardy did not travel with the Rebels to Auburn due to a disciplinary issue.

Last season, Hardy broke a bone in his foot on the third day of preseason camp. He returned in time to help Ole Miss stun eventual national champion Florida in Gainesville, but then made headlines when he couldn't play much in a loss at Alabama because of a failure to pack the proper insole for his shoe.

"People just hear the bad things," Lockett said. "It's the things they take to the extreme. I mean, it was an honest mistake, leaving your cleats. Other people have left their cleats before, and just because it was Greg, it was made into a big ordeal. It wasn't necessarily that he left a cleat. It was for his foot, some type of insole or something."

"In his defense, he did have a broken bone in his little toe," Nutt said. "That's frustrating. We're wanting a full-speed guy, you're playing against Alabama and they had one of the best offensive lines last year, so it's frustrating not to have him out there. We all have frustrations but in his defense, he had a broken bone and you can't play with a broken bone in this league. Hopefully, it's all healed. We're excited about that. We just feel he's a new person."

Hardy had surgery to repair the foot on Jan. 22. He missed spring drills and following a scare when he and teammate Dexter McCluster were broadsided in a traffic accident near Pontotoc, Miss., in July, he was brought along slowly through fall camp. On Tuesday, Hardy said he's healthy heading to the football field for the first time since 2006.

"I've been training rigorously off the field, running on the treadmill and the underwater treadmill," Hardy said. "When I came out close to full speed one of those days in two-a-days, I didn't feel it. After that, I really wasn't worried about it. I was just worried about my shape, and it's good.

"The way I've trained with this weight, it's been a slow and productive process. I've kept my speed. I mean, it's not the 2006 speed because that was about 50 pounds difference. But I believe I'm still pretty fast and I want to add on as I go along. When the season's over, I want to increase that even more."

From all accounts, Hardy has been nothing short of a model citizen since announcing his intention to return for his senior season.

"I deal with him like everybody else," said Ole Miss defensive line coach Terry Price, who joined the Rebels' staff in January after spending 10 seasons at Auburn with Tommy Tuberville. "Everybody's the same in that room. I don't care who you are. He understands what I expect of him like all those players do, as far as being on time and working hard and the tempo of practice. Everybody knows what the rules are and what it takes to be a good player in this league and everybody, including him, has been doing the right thing."

Hardy's presence is one of the primary reasons Ole Miss has drawn more preseason hype to Oxford since Archie Manning was under center 40 years ago.

"Greg's going to draw a lot of attention," Lockett said. "When he draws that attention, that frees up other people. When he draws attention, for some reason and some way, he still makes a way to get in on the pile and make that assist or maybe make that sack before the free man gets there. He makes the possible out of the impossible. When he's healthy, he enhances the defense so much. It's his energy and his style of play."

"It's more of a winning thing," Hardy said when asked if he has something to prove this season. "Everybody else wants to see me out there for 12 games to see what I can do. I just want to show what we can do with everybody healthy, with me healthy, and the impact we can make on the SEC."

Those sentiments are almost certainly music to Nutt's ears. The team-first mentality Hardy has embraced is another reason he and Nutt have seemingly developed a relationship that's built on trust. In August, when Hardy's foot was sore, he'd take a practice off. The missed time never seemed to be an issue. Coach and player appear to have established a comfortable coziness.

"He's a cool guy, man," Hardy said of Nutt. "He's an inspirational dude. I like the way he talks to the team. He's a people person, like they said when he first came in. I was excited about that. It's developed as we've gotten to know each other. He likes me as he gets to know me more every day, and a little trust comes along."

So, sure, Hardy's different. He still occasionally refers to himself in first person, talks to himself or no one in particular on the football field and clearly marches to his own beat. Some still call him weird. After all, there aren't too many art majors who keep quarterbacks up at night.

Just ask Lockett. Personalities don't matter, he said, especially if together they accumulate wins.

"I'm weird," Lockett said. "Everybody's weird in their own way. They just take it to the extreme because he has a name."


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