FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Dre Greenlaw had his bags packed in junior high, ready to make yet another move to yet another group foster home. A ward of the state, Greenlaw had bounced from one home to another since he was 8.

He knew the drill.

He also knew a second chance when he saw one - finding a lifesaver from Brian Early and his family. Since being adopted as a ninth-grader by the Earlys, Greenlaw has taken full advantage of his new lease on life and become one of the top freshmen in the Southeastern Conference.

More from FoxSports

The 6-foot, 222-pound safety-turned-linebacker piled up 16 tackles against Auburn last weekend and is a bright spot in a mediocre year so far for the Razorbacks (3-4, 2-2 SEC).

''I think he's going to be a phenomenal player,'' Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said.

The 18-year-old has loftier goals that have nothing to do with football, too. He considers himself a role model for neglected and forgotten children across Arkansas and beyond - an often-overlooked group in which he spent much of his life.

Brian Early and his wife, Nanci, knew about Greenlaw's difficult childhood because of Early's job as the defensive coordinator at Fayetteville High School.

They knew how drugs had led to prison for one family member, how others had been unable or unwilling to take care of him. There was temporary foster care for a time, an elderly couple that wasn't the long-term answer, a family shelter and eventually the boys' home they found him in at 13.

Without thinking about the future, the Earlys began spending time with Greenlaw on weekends. They would take him to Arkansas football games on Saturdays and church on Sundays before feeding and sending him back to the group home.

''He grew on us,'' Brian Early said. ''My two girls fell in love with him, Nanci fell in love with him and we were just blown away at what type of kid he was despite the circumstances he had to endure.''

Early's plan to was serve as a mentor and father figure for Greenlaw, but the situation changed when the Fayetteville home where the boy was living announced plans to close. Without a family to take him in, Greenlaw was looking at a move to another home an hour away, in Alma, Arkansas.

The Earlys stepped in and stepped up - initially considering becoming foster parents to Greenlaw before realizing what they really wanted was to adopt the young man who had become such an integral part of their family.

''I was packing my bags, getting ready to move to Alma, and (Early) came and told me he wanted me to live with them,'' Greenlaw said. ''Just looking back and seeing how things could have turned out, I just thank God.''

With his home life settled for the first time, Greenlaw flourished in high school. There were moments where he had to adapt at home - eating as much food as he wanted was a welcome change after limiting his portions at the group home - but he quickly found a place to shine on the football field.

Greenlaw had played on a few youth teams when he was young, but never on a consistent basis until ninth grade. He started immediately as a sophomore at safety and helped Fayetteville to a state championship.

Still, there was no scholarship offer from the Razorbacks as Greenlaw entered his senior season. Tulsa had offered, Georgia had offered, and Early said Ohio State would have offered if the coaches thought they had a chance to sign him. Nothing from Arkansas, where Greenlaw desperately wanted to play.

Without an offer from the Razorbacks, Greenlaw committed to play at Arkansas State, where Early had taken a job as the defensive line coach.

Things grew complicated during Greenlaw's senior season when first-year Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith saw him play for the first time. By the second quarter of that October game, Smith was on the phone to Bielema.

''What are we doing?'' Smith asked his boss. ''This kid is everything that we want.''

A scholarship offer quickly followed, but Greenlaw had mixed feelings before he committed to the Razorbacks.

''As much as I wanted to play for my dad, this is always where I wanted to go,'' Greenlaw said. ''And he was all for it, telling me to do whatever was best for me and not for him.''

Arkansas has proven the best fit for Greenlaw, who is second on the Razorbacks with 53 tackles. He continues to feel at home, thanks to the support of his coaches, teammates and adopted family. He's also made progress at communicating with his birth parents over the years, with his mother even coming to watch Arkansas when it played in Little Rock last month.

Greenlaw was never angry about his childhood, never felt like anyone owed him any sympathy for what he went through. It's a message he hopes his new platform helps spread to those going through what he did.

''Dre kind of wants to be an example,'' Early said. ''I think he wants to be an example of never give up and good things can happen.''