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Panthers’ Greg Hardy wants to have big year - on and off field

A couple hours after learning he’d been named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week, Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy said he’s saving space on his calendar for more accomplishments this season – for him and his team.

Hardy plans to return to school during the offseason to finish his degree, but isn’t sure he wants to pre-enroll in Mississippi’s winter term.

“That starts in January. I’m planning on having a big year – Pro Bowl, playoffs, what is it called, the Super Bowl?” Hardy said Wednesday. “Gotta keep the schedule clear just in case.”

Hardy has always talked big, declaring at the start of training camp this year he was shooting for a 50-sack season.

He backed up the talk Sunday during a 38-0 win against the New York Giants, tying a career high with three sacks and setting the tone for a defense that matched a franchise record by sacking Eli Manning seven times.

Hardy became the third Panthers defensive end to be honored by the league, and the first since Julius Peppers won the weekly award in 2009. Like Panthers coach Ron Rivera – who gave every member of the defensive line a game ball for their pressure against the Giants – Hardy spread the credit around.

“It’s crazy how we’ve got so many guys that can pass rush and get sacks,” he said. “It’s hard not to get player of the week when you’ve got guys swarming around and the quarterback’s on the run all day.”

Hardy finished with a team-high eight tackles against New York, including five stops behind the line of scrimmage for minus-22 yards.

The Panthers grade players based on impact plays. Rivera said defensive ends typically make an impact play every four to seven snaps. Against the Giants, Hardy had an impact play every 2.3 snaps.

“I’m excited for him because when you start getting recognized for your performance and your play, you begin to realize, ‘You know what? I do have that kind of ability. I am that good,’” Rivera said.

He was asked how high Hardy’s ceiling is.

“I’m not going to quote like he did and say 50,” Rivera said, laughing. “But he’s got a high ceiling. And I think he’s just beginning to scratch the surface.”

Hardy, a sixth-round pick in 2010, combined for seven sacks his first two seasons. The start to his 2011 season was sidetracked by a motorcycle wreck than left him with a foot injury and severe abrasions on one side of his body.

He broke through last season when he and Charles Johnson combined for 23.5 sacks, including 11 by Hardy. At 6-foot-4 and 290 pounds, he is an athletic marvel who caught three passes at Ole Miss – all for touchdowns – and played on the Rebels’ basketball team as a freshman.

The Panthers line Hardy up at defensive tackle in a lot of pass-rushing situations, and they’ve also used him as a gunner on the punt team in previous seasons.

But Hardy’s preference is to go after quarterbacks, and he scoffed when someone suggested sacks might be an overrated statistic.

“That’s one of the hardest plays to get in an NFL game. I can catch a touchdown. I’ve got film. Check me out. I caught touchdowns on (defensive backs) who are in the league now. But you’ve got to respect the game,” Hardy said, pointing out he was joking about being an NFL receiving threat.

“Catching touchdowns is hard. Getting sacks is hard. Throwing the ball’s hard,” he added. “Everything you do is hard, and I feel like once you do it at a high level and do it over and over again, you should get recognized. It doesn’t happen all the time.”

Hardy, 25, is in the final year of his rookie contract. His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, has been talking with the Panthers about a long-term extension.

Hardy said he wasn’t sure about the status of the negotiations.

He said he was thinking about taking off for a couple of days during the Panthers’ bye week, but wasn’t sure where he’ll go. He mentioned staying out of trouble, but said that wouldn’t be difficult.

“No, not at all. You’ve just got to say it,” he said. “If you put it into the universe, it will be – stay out of trouble, don’t get fired.”

Hardy said he needs three classes to complete his graphic design degree, with an English minor, but he hopes he’s not available for the start of classes in January, when the playoffs and Pro Bowl are scheduled.

“You’ve got to keep grinding until somebody notices,” Hardy said. “And you can’t do it for the recognition. You’ve got to do it for the wins. That’s what’s most important to me – not losing.”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson
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