National Signing Day is still 20 days away, but Houston Nutt was grinning from ear to ear over the start of his 2009 signing class.
Nutt met with Ole Miss defensive end Greg Hardy and Hardy's mother for about 90 minutes on Thursday morning to discuss the Millington, Tenn., junior's immediate future. When the meeting ended, Hardy issued a statement indicating his decision to return to Ole Miss for his senior season.
"We signed another good recruit today," Nutt said. "He had a lot more things he wanted to accomplish. He talked a lot about the bowl. It was his first experience with a bowl. He has a lot more personal goals he wants to achieve and his mom wants him to graduate. Those are all good things and we're excited that he's coming back."
Nutt said he recommended to Hardy a month ago that he return, based on grades and evaluations the Rebel staff received from NFL scouts. Nutt said he was told Hardy would likely be taken in the second or third round of April's draft. Nutt said he told Hardy he was better than that, adding that "…a lot of that up-front money is hard to go back and get."
Hardy issued a statement through the university Thursday morning.
"I'm excited to return for my senior season and look forward to helping our team build on the success we enjoyed this season," Hardy said in the statement. "Professional football is a goal every college football player strives to reach, but I feel its in my best interest to return to school. My parents support my decision and I know my mom wants me to graduate from Ole Miss."
Hardy suffered a fracture in his foot on the third day of fall camp last August, an injury that hampered him throughout the season. Hardy played in eight games _ starting none _ and recorded 17 tackles and 8 ½ sacks, earning Rivals.com third-team All-America honors. He recorded one tackle in Ole Miss' 47-34 win over Texas Tech in the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic on Jan. 2 in Dallas. During that week, he appeared to be experiencing discomfort in his injured foot, prompting speculation that more surgery might be needed to repair the injury.
Nutt said he didn't know whether Hardy would need more surgery, but if he does, "He's got plenty of time. I'm not worried about any of that."
The 6-foot-4, 265-pound Hardy, who is athletic enough to have garnered quality minutes as a freshman on Andy Kennedy's basketball team, has recorded 129 tackles and 21 ½ sacks during his Ole Miss career.
"If we get 10, 11 or 12 games, this guy is a top-10 guy," Nutt said. "What a difference-maker he'll be for our team. …He loves football. He loves to compete, and the biggest thing I got out of this meeting was how much he enjoyed the success of the season. That shows me he's a team player and that's something I appreciate."
Nutt said he's hopeful Hardy will be available for spring practice and will be in the team meeting room on Tuesday when the Rebels reconvene for the first time since the Cotton Bowl.