One of the most interesting stories this season has been the emergence of Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy. The man who calls himself “Kraken” has notched 11 sacks on the year along with two forced fumbles, and he’s one of the most colorful characters in the NFL. Before he went by the moniker Kraken, he was known simply as “DK”.

It was at Briarcrest High School when Hardy first started to play football. Briarcrest was known for bringing in struggling students and very impressive athletes. The most famous was left tackle Michael Oher, who was the focus of the book The Blind Side and is now a Baltimore Raven, and Hardy was the next big talent to come through.

When he met head coach Hugh Freeze — who’s now at Ole Miss — he told the coach to call him “DK,” which was short for “African Warrior” in a way that only Hardy understood. When he got onto the field, he dominated the opposition and colleges knew all about the talent that he possessed as author Michael Lewis revealed in his story on Oher (p. 319):

“…the team still had one big-time prospect, a pass rushing defensive end named Greg Hardy, “The Freak,” as he was known, because he was six six and 245 pounds with lightning reflexes and sprinter speed. The Freak was a quarterback’s worst nightmare. The Freak was also black and, right up to the moment Briarcrest let him in, the recipient of a Memphis public school education. He wasn’t a great student, but his grades were good enough to qualify him to play college football. And Phil Fulmer was seriously interested in him.”

Fulmer, the head coach at Tennessee at the time, never got Hardy to play for him; He decided to go play at Ole Miss. During his four-year stay at Ole Miss, Hardy was not only one of the most gifted players on the team, but in the country as well. He possessed a great jolt off the line of scrimmage, he could smoothly run down ball-carriers, and most importantl, he could get to the quarterback whenever he wanted. That is, whenever he wanted.

Questions surrounded his work ethic, which was largely because of a lack of constant concentration, and durability. But when he wanted to get to the quarterback, he got there. In a 2007 game that is still reminisced about in Mississippi today, he sabotaged the Alabama Crimson Tide offensive line. Three sacks, two forced fumbles, two quarterback hurries and 13 total tackles. And he did it while re-aggravating a stress fracture because his cleats weren’t packed for the trip, so he borrowed a teammate’s shoes that were two sizes too small.

Injuries plagued him the rest of his collegiate career and character questions — they weren’t overly serious; just Greg Hardy being Greg Hardy — arose during the 2010 NFL draft process, which saw him slide to the sixth round despite possessing immense talent. He was 6’4″, 280 pounds and had a basketball background, which many personnel men seek in their outside linebacker converts. He also possessed lightning quick hands and the athleticism and versatility to play end or linebacker.

Now three years into his NFL career, he’s finally playing like the Greg Hardy some of us knew at Ole Miss. He’s (somewhat) settled down since his first two years, and he appears to be focused on football, which has seen him turn in an 11-sack season thus far. His various talents have been used all over the Panthers’ struggling defensive line, as he’s played the one-technique nose tackle, three-technique undertackle, his natural spot at five-technique, six-technique head-up on the tight end and nine-technique outside of the tight end.

On the interior, he’s been particularly problematic because of his agility and hand quickness. In Week 8 against the Chicago Bears, he applied pressure over the right guard on multiple occasions and collected three sacks from the outside.

The outside has been interesting, as he’s had a lot of success getting after the quarterback because of his motor. Although he appears to wear down at times, which every pass rusher does, he has done a good job of posing problems for left tackles (and sometimes right) with his speed rush. When stonewalled initially, Hardy’s used his quickness to get around the blockers and to the quarterback.

Against the Chargers in Week 15, his aforementioned hand quickness was particularly difficult for left tackle Kevin Haslam to contain. Greg Hardy was lined up a yard to the left of Haslam’s shoulder as the five-technique, weakside defensive end. When quarterback Philip Rivers dropped back, Hardy exploded off the line of scrimmage and quickly put his hands into the breast pads of Haslam, who had inferior length.

Once that happened, Hardy disengaged and astutely pulled down the arms of Haslam, so he could get by without contact.

Haslam tried to slow down Hardy but failed to do so as he lost his balance and was caught bending at the waist. It also didn’t help that Hardy had sunk his inside shoulder, giving the blocker little space to work with while trying to redirect him. After speeding by Haslam, he made a beeline for Rivers and brought him down for the first of two sacks in the game.

While watching Hardy rush the passer and play the run — which he’s also done well — this season, I couldn’t help but have flashbacks of his dominant, yet disappointing collegiate career. The performance against Alabama has forever been ingrained in my memory as has the 1.5 sack performance against the Tim Tebow-led Gators in 2008, which saw him take over the cover of Sports Illustrated afterwards.

This season’s performance has had flashes of the talent that he displayed at Ole Miss and there’s hope that those flashes will become constant bright lights. They can if he continues to focus on football (opposed to, say, rap) and learning how to play his position(s) with proper footwork and consistent hand usage.

For now, he’s healthy and appears to be on the right track to proving all the teams that passed on him wrong.