A Healthy Hardy

May it be the extra workouts or an expanded leadership role, the difference in senior defensive end Greg Hardy's demeanor this fall is of a man on a mission.

Having struggled through multiple surgeries to his oft-injured right foot, Hardy has spent the better part of two years battling his way to 100 percent.

Much of his time has been occupied on an underwater treadmill or in conditioning work. There was no spring practice for Hardy, with two-a-days restricted to morning sessions only.

"I'm ecstatic about life. It's great to be here and my foot doesn't hurt," Hardy said. "It's a process. It's a foot injury and I've had two surgeries. Of course there are going to be growing pains. The pain I had last year, it's nowhere near. I feel great. The soreness and swelling is fine with me."

But with Ole Miss' season opener against Memphis rapidly approaching, the 6-foot-5, 275 pounder is rounding back to form. Little can slow a determined Hardy from making his final year in Oxford one to remember.

"We're depending on him," said Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt. "His attitude has been completely changed since January. He's been very committed. He's gone through the surgery. He's gone through different things. I've just been real proud of the ways he's attacked meetings, practices – the whole deal. I'm looking forward to seeing him play this year – and more than four games.

"In his defense, he did have a broken bone in his little toe, and that's frustrating. When you're a full-speed guy and you're playing against Alabama with one of the best offensive lines last year, it's frustrating not to have him out there. So we all had frustrations. But in his defense, he had a broken bone, and you can't play with a broken bone in this league. That's all healed and we're excited about that. I feel like he's a new person."

For Ole Miss defensively, having a healthy Hardy in the fold is a welcomed sight.

Despite only playing in nine games last season, Hardy earned second team All-SEC honors from the SEC Coaches and honorable mention from the Associated Press. Hardy's team-high 8.5 sacks ranked third in the SEC, and his 0.94 sacks per game would have ranked seventh in the NCAA had he participated in 75 percent of games played.

As a two-time All-American, Hardy has proven to be one of the premier pass rushers in college football over his Rebel career. He's amassed 32.5 tackles for loss and 21.5 sacks, including an SEC-best 10.0 in 2007.

"Greg is going to draw a lot of attention whenever he's on the field," fellow end and co-starter Kentrell Lockett said. "And when he draws that attention, it frees up other people. But even when he draws attention, he somehow finds a way to get in on the pile, get an assist or even get a 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."

However, in his first year as defensive line coach, Terry Price isn't sure what to expect from his star pupil against the Tigers.

With Hardy's absence in April and the Memphis native's limitations in fall camp, Price has had a small body of work to draw from.

"The biggest thing has been to get him out here to practice," Price said. "We didn't see him in the spring. It's good to see him out here. Obviously the healthier he gets, the better he moves around. He's had a chance to practice at camp more than he did at all last spring. He's working hard and has shown some flashes of the player he is. He has to work himself into shape and stay healthy and be a big factor on this football team.

"Like I said, he didn't practice at all this spring. So this is really my first chance to coach him on the football field. I haven't had any problem with him. He's tried to do everything right, and that's all we can ask of him right now."

Considering the length of time since being close to full strength, even Hardy is unsure of what Sunday holds.

"I don't know what to expect. I'm a whole different man," said Hardy, who has upped his frame to 275 pounds with extra time spent in the weight room.

"I don't know how to use all my new weight yet. I feel fine. I've gotten bigger, but the explosiveness of where I am and where I want to be – it's not on the same level. So I'm just going to keep working through the season and hopefully I get it back soon."

But there's no need to rush.

Joining a deep front returning all but one starter a year ago in now-Atlanta Falcon Peria Jerry, Hardy isn't the only lineman being called upon for production this season.

Along with Lockett, juniors Lawon Scott and Ted Laurent have proven more than capable as disrupters in the middle, with senior captain Marcus Tillman the definition of consistency as a bookend for the front four.

Throw in senior Emmanuel Stephens and a wealth of talented youngsters, and the conference's second-best run defense remains stacked with a trip to the Bluff City days away.

"I love our defensive line," Hardy said. "Our depth is ridiculous. We hit hard and we're fast. I trust those guys. We've been together a long time. We're just going to keep working. I feel like we can stone a lot of people up front. "

While most will look to Hardy as the Jevan Snead for Ole Miss defensively, Price sees the preseason Playboy All-American simply as another piece in his embarrassment of line riches.

However, even Price acknowledges premier talent when he sees it – albeit in practice.

"Obviously to see how good he is, you have to see him play in a game. I haven't seen him play in a game yet as a part of this staff, and that's ultimately how he will be judged," he said. "But he's a very good athlete with a lot of explosive features. And I'm looking forward to seeing him on Sunday and seeing him play in a game."

And that game has been a long time coming.

"It's really unexplainable," Hardy said of his excitement in facing the Tigers. "It's one of those things inside where you're ready to go. You're geared up. We've been hitting each other all summer. You can't really get into them. Finally, I'll get that chance. For me, (Memphis) is back home. So I get to just lay into somebody. I'm happy as I can be about it."

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