Panthers' Hardy transforming into an elite NFL pass rusher

Panthers end Greg Hardy — along with his 'Kraken' alter ego — is banking on a big-time 2013 campaign.

The transformation happens on Fridays.

He’s Greg Hardy Monday through Thursday of game weeks. He’s the Kraken come Friday.

The signature face paint resembling a pro wrestler won’t come until Sunday – neither will the pre-game name tag he displays on the back of his jersey. But the beast appears on Friday.

“You get into predator mode and it’s time to go kill,” Hardy said. “Everything else is natural.”

Hardy’s always had an appetite for quarterbacks but doesn’t remember the exact game the Kraken alter ego was created. He remembers seeing the nickname on a Panthers message board two years ago and it all developed from there.

“It was one game in a losing season — just got pissed and my big thing was just going to war. I was just like this is not a game anymore. We get paid for this. You can get fired tomorrow. You can get killed out here. This is war. There’s no guns, but it’s war,” Hardy said. “So I just painted up my war face, do my thing, rally the troops, and get the crowd going.” 

He may have found his nickname on a message board, but he takes all the credit for the nickname he assigned for the Panthers defensive line this offseason – MonStrz, Inc., a play off of the Disney film. Charles Johnson (Loch Ness), Dwan Edwards (Phoenix), Star Lotulelei (Hydra), KaWann Short (Minotaur), Frank Alexander (Leviathan), Frank Kearse (Big Foot), Mario Addison (Gargoyle) and Colin Cole (Big Predator) each got assigned their own persona in a unit that appears to be closer than any other on the team.

“It’s a fun little thing, the fans like it," Lotulelei said. It’s what I tell Greg — it’s his world and us rookies just live in it."

Veteran teammate Steve Smith, who seems to have Hardy’s gameday edge at all times, isn’t as much of a fan of the nicknames. 

“I don’t believe in mythical creatures and I’m not playing that game,” Smith said. “I’m 34 years old, I don’t have time for that.”

But even Smith recognizes the difference on the field. It’s the ability to separate his off-the-field personality from the attitude that he needs on the field that allows him to "dominate." There’s always a certain aura of confidence about Hardy. His talk of “destroying people” and dominating don’t come off as much egotistical as they do matter of fact. On the field, he uses his play rather than his mouth as his leadership style, letting a constant motor and intensity create followers. 

That’s why the jovial guy in the locker room, cracking jokes on his teammates, shuts it off come Friday. 

“I like to have fun. It’s definitely work time when it’s work time,” Hardy said. “Some people consider that bipolar or shifty, but I feel like that’s talented. If you can shift from having a great time in life in general and enjoying your downtime and then get to learning like I do in the meeting rooms. Then, when it’s out on the field, I gotta be a field general and put my mean face on and go to work.”

Life’s rather simple, according to Hardy. He fell off a motorcycle after his rookie year that injured his foot and left him hobbled heading into training camp. Lesson learned: “Don’t fall!” 

Zero sacks through the first two games of the season: “Play even harder.” 

It’s the same mindset he’s used heading into a contract year with offseason talk swirling around a potential contract extension that never got done before the season. Talks with Steve Smith and Jon Beason about it in the preseason all yielded the same theme: Play well and the rest takes care of itself. That’s the same thing he’s told his agent, Drew Rosenhaus: “You do your job, and I’m just gonna ball.” 

He won’t deny he wants a big deal — the type that could set up his family for life and where he wouldn’t ever have to worry about getting a job after his career's final snap. It’s the type of freedom that would allow him to play without being conscience of injury, where he “can just play balls to the wall completely.” 

Still, at $1.1 million in 2013, he’s not complaining. It’s “still a heckuva lot of money” and a long ways from his days growing up in Millington, Tenn, a northern suburb of Memphis. The work is hard but the life is better, and that’s why you won’t find him worrying at all whether a new contract gets done or not. 

“In the grand scheme of things if you can just look at the overview, it’s not like I’m hurting or my bills ain’t paid like back in the day when I’m hustling for food,” Hardy said. “I’m fed. I’m just trying to secure my family’s security for life.” 

What about the risk of injury or a down year, though? Should a fourth-year player like Hardy worry about those risks heading into a contract year when an extension didn’t get complete before the season? 

“Not if I was him, especially with as good of player as he is,” veteran Dwan Edwards said. “He’s going to come out and work his butt off and have a fantastic year and I think all that stuff will take care of itself.”

As black and white as things are for Hardy on the field and off, the one mystery he’s never been able to solve is how he fell from a projected top-10 pick heading into his senior season to a sixth rounder. There were injury concerns — a broken foot in the offseason and a broken wrist to end the season. There were motor concerns and work ethic whispers, too. 

Still, the guy who always has a simple answer on hand has yet to come up with one concerning his draft-day freefall. He knows he’s better than the story his selection told. 

“Honestly, I would never know. I’m better than that,” Hardy said about his late selection. “I didn’t get five or 10 DUIs, didn’t fail no drug tests. Honestly, it’s a mystery. Coulda been my injuries, but I was healthy. It’s a mystery to me still. My only response is it’s some bull, but I’m glad the Panthers saw through that bull and gave me a shot.” 

There’s an edge to Hardy when he talks about slipping to the sixth round, the type every great competitor has when they feel their ability’s been slighted. That’s part of where the relentlessness comes from, and offensive guard Travelle Wharton can only laugh at the idea of concerns with Hardy’s motor or work ethic. 

“He’s relentless. He goes after it. He don’t stop. You may stop him on a move and he’s got another one. You stop him on that one, and he keeps going — that changes the way you play. You want to take something away,” Wharton said. “He’s strong and he’s fast and with those combinations that makes a great pass rusher.” 

You see that sentiment even in the preseason when a back gets loose on the edge and Hardy ends up chasing him all the way across the field to make the tackle on the opposite sideline. You see it in the season opener when he continually got in the pocket to pressure Seattle's Russell Wilson. Those hurries don’t always show up in the stat sheet but their impact cannot be understated on a team with a shaky secondary. And that’s why Hardy’s not worried that he hasn’t registered a sack yet after 11 a year ago. 

“If I have 16 sacks and we’re 0-16, no one’s going to give a (crap) about my 16 sacks,” he said. 

While Hardy’s emphatic the numbers don’t tell the tale, he publicly stated an offseason goal of 50 sacks. He still thinks it’s possible and believes he’s put in the offseason work to achieve it, dropping 15 pounds down to 275 pounds that he said has made a night and day difference in his speed. Last year’s 11 was just a “stepping stone.” 

“It’s all about getting back there," he said. "Eventually they’re gonna come and when they come, it’s gonna start raining and pouring."

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