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biloxi-indian 04-01-2010 04:01 PM

Inconsistent Ole Miss career hurts Hardy’s stock
BRADENTON, Fla. – Greg Hardy is many things. Smart, funny, engaging, open, unafraid and, most important to football people, put together like Adonis. At 6-foot-3 and 278 pounds of sculpted bone and muscle that ran the 40-yard dash in 4.77 seconds last week, Hardy looks the part of a first-round pick in next month’s NFL draft.

At times, he plays it, too.

During his first three years at Mississippi, he had 21˝ sacks and 32˝ tackles for losses despite starting only 13 games. He also caught three touchdown passes in his first two years while working as a hybrid tight end/wide receiver, and played basketball as a freshman.

When it comes to athletes, few take the field like Hardy. That is, when he takes the field. Between talent, injuries and attitude, Hardy is a guy who both intrigues and repulses NFL types.

Last week, a team executive called him the best pass rusher available in what is considered a very deep draft for defensive players. The next day, a head coach called him a “con artist.” In college, Hardy said that coaches once asked him if he was bipolar.

Ultimately, the negative assessments and skepticism could send what was once considered a top-10 talent spiraling down to the third round.

Hardy’s reaction: He just shrugs it off.

“If I’m a sixth-round pick and I go out there and get 20 sacks, what can you say to me?” said Hardy, who registered just five sacks in his senior year for the Rebels. “You have to pay me anyways. I’m gonna get paid. I’m about winning, that’s what it’s all about. I went back for my senior year, even though I could’ve been a top-10 pick [after my junior year] because I wanted to win. If we had won a national championship, I would have loved that.

“It’s not about the money. You’re going to recognize my greatness whether I’m a sixth-round pick or a fourth-round pick or a first-round pick. It’s like my boy from the Patriots, Tom Brady(notes). He was a sixth-round pick. What are you going to say to him?”

While matching Brady’s three Super Bowl titles would be a tremendous feat, Hardy doesn’t figure to fall that far down on draft boards. Once he improved his 40 time during Ole Miss’ pro day on March 23 – dropping more than two-tenths of a second from his time at the NFL scouting combine – the belief is that he will be drafted somewhere in the top three rounds.

Still, the myriad of questions remain as to what type of career he’ll have in the NFL because of his up-and-down college stint.

Mississippi coach Houston Nutt praised Hardy plenty of times during their two years together (Nutt replaced former coach Ed Orgeron after Hardy’s sophomore season). Before last season, Nutt told reporters: “We expect so much from Greg Hardy because he’s a difference maker, and he’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated one week and we want that guy to come back. … We want him to come back every Saturday. He wasn’t the only one, but we put so much on him because we expect so much from Greg.”

The reference to Sports Illustrated was from Mississippi’s upset of top-ranked Florida in 2008. Ole Miss prevailed 31-30 in part on the strength of Hardy’s ability to harass Florida quarterback Tim Tebow. Hardy finished with 1˝ sacks, 2˝ tackles for a loss and ended up on the cover of SI chasing Tebow on one play.

The next week against South Carolina, the enigma that is Hardy reemerged. He was held without a tackle in the game and was subsequently pulled. After the game, then-defensive line coach Tracy Rocker explained that he was disappointed with Hardy’s effort and was later quoted as saying, “If you’re not going to do your best I’ve got a problem and that’s all we ask.”

Things didn’t improve much during Hardy’s senior season. He played in all but one game, yet didn’t consistently start. Not surprisingly, he then impressed scouts with his effort during practices leading up to the East-West Shrine Game in January.

“He’s not a bad kid, he’s a difficult kid,” one of Hardy’s former assistant coaches said. “It’s like he’s always pushing you to see how much he could get away with … he’s so gifted it’s ridiculous. And when you see that, it’s like ‘Wow, he could be really special if he just did the things you ask.’ But Greg thinks he knows better. The sad part is he’s going to figure it out one day because he’s smart, but it may be too late before he gets it.”

From Hardy’s perspective, he believes his explanations fall flat no matter what.

“Nobody likes my answer [about the South Carolina game],” said Hardy, who was also suspended for two games during his sophomore season by Orgeron for violation of team rules. “What if I come back with, ‘I played 11 or 12 plays in a game’? Go back and see how many plays I had in that game. I don’t know if it was 11 or 12 but I didn’t play a lot.

“I missed a sack against South Carolina. If I had a sack that game nobody says a word. But the coaches said something about my facial expression, that I wasn’t ready to go. … In that game I didn’t optimize at all. That’s on me, but how can you tell by my facial expression whether I’m ready to go, when not? I’m a two-time All-American and you’re telling me it’s my facial expression?”

Mixed signals

Lan Hardy never wanted her son to play football. Her husband, Greg Sr., also played at Mississippi. The elder Hardy was an outside linebacker, but Lan had no love for the game.

Still, when Greg was 8, he signed up for a team. Playing mostly with kids a year older, Greg spent most of the time off to the side picking grass. Lan was fine with that.

“I thought he’d get bored after one season and never play again,” she said. “But then he went back and he loved it.”

Hardy loved just about everything he did and he was good at it, too. Football, basketball, track and baseball. He also was good at school and his college injuries pushed him to put emphasis on his studies. In less than four full years at Mississippi (he took this semester off to focus on the draft), Hardy said he is only three classes short of a degree in graphic design with a minor in English.

“Greg Hardy is playing ball, baby, but everybody gets old,” Hardy said. “I was 17 coming into college, so when I got hurt I was 19 years old and I had to realize that everything changes when you’re hurt. I had a broken foot. You don’t get the same treatment when you’re hurt. So if this is what it’s like when you get hurt, man, you better get a degree.”

His ability to see the big picture is probably a product of coming from a strong family. His mother is a detective with the Millington, Tenn., police. His father is a former investigator with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) who now owns a car detailing business. They have seven children and discipline has always been part of the program.

Such as the time in a grocery store when Hardy was about 8 years old and got bratty, yelling about something he wanted. His father made him drop to the floor right in the middle of the store and do pushups.

“He’s not a man to play with and my mom is licensed to carry a gun,” Hardy said with a laugh. “It’s one of those combinations you don’t want to mess with. So respect is big at my house.”

Yet, the stories of Hardy testing his college coaches are well known to NFL insiders. One executive said that Orgeron’s staff used to refer to “Hardy Time,” meaning Hardy simply didn’t practice on occasion. There are other stories of Hardy being late, which he sort of admits to these days, but says it was rare.

That’s not the story the NFL has gotten.

“The coaches there will tell you he was late to about 20 meetings,” another NFL team executive said. “You ask him about it and he’ll say, ‘I wasn’t late.’ You say, ‘Then why do your coaches say you were late?’ and he says, ‘Well, maybe I was late once or twice.’

“It’s the same thing about the game itself. He tells you, ‘Oh, the game is really important to me.’ Then you ask him why he didn’t play and he says it was the coaches’ decision. When you ask him if he talked to the coaches about it, he says that he didn’t because it was their decision and he didn’t care. Then you say, ‘If football is so important to you, then why wouldn’t you talk to the coaches?’ and he doesn’t have an answer.”

All of that is tempered by the fact that Hardy will clearly do the physical work. He entered college at 230 pounds, but is now at 278 and doesn’t appear to have an ounce out of place.

“I guarantee I was the hardest working man on that team the last two years,” Hardy said. “Go check the weight room staff. I don’t know what my coach will tell you, but go ask the players on that team. Ask the freshman, I was out there teaching them. I was running extra sprints after practice. I was out there doing extra drills.

“My agent said ‘wait till other people are around,’ like reporters, to do stuff like that. But I don’t feel like I need to. If you see me doing it, I’m doing it, but that’s not the reason I’m doing it. People wonder why you can’t stop Greg Hardy. It’s not because I woke the [expletive] up one day and started doing this [expletive]. I was skinny like a bird’s chest and worked my way to here. Some people think you don’t work like this in football, but in the real world facts are evident. The truth is you can’t [expletive] stop me.”

Furthermore, he came back as both a sophomore and junior after having surgery on the same foot (right) to repair a stress fracture. When he aggravated the injury in a car accident before his senior season, he came back in only two weeks instead of missing a possible five. He also played through ankle and wrist injuries last season. He required wrist surgery in November, but came back to play in the Cotton Bowl vs. Oklahoma State.

“Yeah, I hear that stuff about how his work ethic isn’t that good and I think that’s just us being way too critical,” Cleveland Browns general manager Tom Heckert said. “This kid has had a lot of injuries and worked really hard to come back from them. That’s not the type of kid who is just skating by, not working.”

Part of the problem with guys like Hardy is that the bar is set too high. Combine his athletic ability, his appearance and his current production and you have people who are expecting Superman and are disappointed when Clark Kent shows up.

“When some teams were watching film [with me], they would ask, ‘Where are you?’ I’d point and say, ‘I’m right there behind the ball carrier or I’m right there running,’ ” Hardy said. “Because I’m not jumping over three guys, doing a backflip and then sacking the quarterback, it’s not as good.

“I’m not going to lie, sometimes not everybody hustles on every single play. I don’t care who you’re talking about. It can be Peyton Manning(notes). If I wanted to critique him, I promise you I could. He’s not at the same level every time … it’s impossible on every play. It doesn’t mean you’re not hustling as hard.”

The second part of that answer is not something that NFL people like to hear, even if it’s drenched in truth. Absolute effort on every play is next to impossible. Still, people like to hear that it’s happening. Hardy doesn’t much like to play the act in interviews. It’s sort of like the scene from “Shawshank Redemption” when Red tells the parole board about the realities of his time in prison.

“You can prepare for an interview, but it’s hard,” Hardy said. “In my situation no matter what I say it sounds like an excuse. But if I don’t say anything it sounds like I’m BSing. Pretty much it’s a no-win situation unless you’re willing to sit down and really look at all the facts and really try to understand what’s going on.

“But if you come in with a formulated plot, no matter what I say I’m losing it. If I say it’s my fault, you’re saying I’m a [expletive] up. If I say this happened, you’re saying, ‘Stop making excuses.’ If I say I worked hard, I don’t know what happened, you’re saying, ‘What are you telling me, that your coach doesn’t want to win?’ So you go in there and you smile.”

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