Greg Hardy was wearing a New York Yankees knit skull cap Thursday in Oxford, where temperatures soared and humidity swelled.
"I hope everybody has a unique personality," Hardy said. "I'm just me. I try not to _ what do they say? _ walk to anybody else's drum."
One part of Hardy's reputation is inarguable, and that's his ability on the playing field.
"He's quick and very athletic," Ole Miss offensive tackle Michael Oher said. "He's probably the most athletically gifted player on the team. He's really a freak. He can run. He's explosive. He can jump and he has a motor that won't stop and he can outrun anybody on the team. G-Hard has so many moves. He can do a lot of things."
"He has what we call 'twitch' in our sport," Ole Miss defensive line coach Tracy Rocker said. "A lot of guys are fast, but he has an initial get-off on the line of scrimmage, a twitch that excites us.
The flip side of Hardy's reputation is that he's a bit of an eccentric character. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound Ole Miss defensive end would argue _ though not very vehemently _ that he's not really all that different from his teammates. Hardy, who has terrorized opposing offensive tackles and frustrated a slew of coaches during his career at Ole Miss, said Thursday that his array of skull caps, his propensity for long clothing and his measured, clipped words sometimes cause misunderstandings.
"I wouldn't say it's different, but it's me," Hardy said.
"He's easy," Rocker said. "I don't have a problem with Greg. When you're going through transition, everyone goes through it differently. I guess a lot of people don't understand, but in coaching, I have 16 kids, 16 different personalities, 16 different handprints and now you've got to get them to all come together as one and that's probably the biggest thing I deal with in coaching the front four. Greg is not a problem. He's not disruptive in my meetings or anything. Every kid has to grow up. That's part of life. We all go through a phase where we start to grow up. I think everyone forgets how young he is. Greg is still growing up."
On the field, it was clear during spring that Hardy's new coaches, the same ones who had seen him dominate at times on the field and seemingly disappear on other occasions, were sending messages and issuing challenges all at once. The message, Rocker said, was simple.
"I just think that if you go back over the past year, when I walk around here, everyone says, 'Do you remember when Greg Hardy when he took over the Alabama game?'" Rocker said. "I'm like, 'Yeah, but he didn't take it over until the second half. What about the first half?' Those are things that are important to me as a coach. You want to play the whole game, all four quarters, and that's what I am here to demand of Greg Hardy.
"When he's giving me 100 percent, that's when he's a great player. But my job is to make sure he's all the time and then let (trainer) Tim Mullins work it out. …He wasn't a starter. I just think it has to be important to him. Everyone talks about how good they are, but it doesn't interest me. What interests me is can we play as a unit for the whole game? Hey, we're at the bottom of the barrel. Vandy's better than us. Years ago, it was the other way around, so when I'm at the bottom of the barrel, I don't owe anybody anything. We're all in this together trying to get off the bottom of the barrel and I want to make sure we're all on the same page."
It was a message Hardy seemed to receive, grudgingly at first perhaps, but by the end of spring and into the summer, the junior from Briarcrest Christian had emerged as a team leader and one of the Rebels' hardest workers.
"As spring went on, he got better and got better," Rocker said. "Attitude got better. But this is not my first rodeo with kids. That's the nature of anything when you're dealing with young men. I deal with it every day with my little boy. So I'm just dealing with older guys, but that's my job to make sure that we're all on the same page doing what Coach (Tyrone) Nix wants us to do and what Houston Nutt wants us to do."
Told of Rocker's assessment, Hardy showed little expression. He didn't disagree _ "You can always work harder to be a force out there," Hardy said _ but he seemed to think that too big of a deal was being made of his decision to embrace Houston Nutt's program and Don Decker's strength and conditioning system.
"I've seen their product at Arkansas," Hardy said. "They had good players, guys who were big and strong and didn't get hurt a lot. I guess you could say I was buying into what (Decker) said and I was just seeing what happened. I've been all types of things through the three years I've played in and we haven't won yet. I'll be whatever they need me to be right now. I have good teammates. I guess it just hasn't been our year yet."
Hardy, who recorded 64 tackles and 10 sacks in 10 games last season, is listed as a co-starter along with Kentrell Lockett going into the start of fall camp Monday. Earlier this month, Hardy was selected to the preseason All-Southeastern Conference first team, yet he's fighting for a starting job. That would bother some players, but Hardy said Thursday that designation doesn't matter to him.
"I'm not worried about it," Hardy said. "If I'm not first team to start the season, I know I'm going to get my chance. I know Coach Rocker is going to put me out there and I'll do my thing. 'First team' is just a label. As long as we're winning, I'm OK with it."