Carolina Panthers

Carter turning heads, getting rave reviews

SPARTANBURG -- Every year, it seems, there's a Jason Carter.

The difference in the current one, however, is that he actually has a chance.

The Carolina Panthers have been well-stocked in camp-phenom wide receivers, usually skinny-legged track stars who manage to capture imaginations because of the flash they showed in Spartanburg practices. Their names flowed off tongues in August, but they rarely lasted much longer -- Donnell Baker, Jim Turner, Anthony Bright, Eugene Baker, Efrem Hill, Taye Biddle.

They were all going to be the next big thing, except they weren't.

Carter might.

The latest in the line is different for one reason -- he's a football player, and the guys that matter are starting to figure it out.

"Those guys need to know I'm going to throw you the football," quarterback Jake Delhomme said of the team's young wideouts. "Let's go. It's ready. Jason has really embraced it."

"I want to go out there every day and go against Steve Smith, Muhsin Muhammad and Jason Carter, those type of guys, and make myself better," said cornerback Chris Gamble.

"Jason Carter has had an awesome camp," Muhammad himself said.

But for an overnight sensation, it's been a bit of a slow climb for the 25-year-old Carter.

Undrafted out of Texas A&M, he bounced in and out of Minnesota's active roster in 2006, playing one game, spending seven more inactive and the rest of the year on the practice squad. After the Vikings cut him in 2007, the Panthers signed him to the practice squad, and he got a late call-up but didn't play the last two games of the season.

That's not to say he didn't make an impression.

Working on the eight-man practice-squad, Carter genuinely amazed teammates on a daily basis. He made Smith-level catches. He still remembers a 50-yard, diving, one-handed (the left) grab of a Matt Moore pass last year, when they were both servicing the first defense.

"He caught my eye last year," coach John Fox said. "Albeit (on) the practice squad. It's an opportunity for guys to learn and participate in the National Football League. I think he worked very hard and got better as the season went on, and we'll see what kind of dividends that brings here in this camp."

Living the practice squad life isn't easy. The pay wasn't bad (about $4,700 a week), but there's no uniform at the end of the week, no game to show that the hard work meant anything.

"It's really tough," Carter admitted. "But when the team wins you do get a payoff. The fans don't know that it's you out there working hard for the team, but your teammates and coaches know. So really, you play this game for the love and the respect of your teammates, so in a way you do get the payoff.

"It's definitely hard to stay motivated; it's a long season. You keep thinking 'Man, I wish they would call me up, I wish they would call me up,' but you just have to take every practice and look at it like, 'This is the week they could call me up. So I need to try to catch their eye even more.' ... That's what I try to do."

And that often meant doing things other than running routes and catching passes.

Since the regular season roster's 53 men, the eight-man practice squad often has to be versatile, playing other positions when the backups run short. He played some defensive back, and would run step-for-step with the regulars. When the Panthers played teams with athletic quarterbacks, he'd often be the one running the scout team rather than Moore.

Those chances he loved, because it got him back to his roots, and gave him a chance to do one of the other things that make people's jaws drop.

"Have you seen him throw?" said Panthers center Geoff Hangartner, a college teammate. "The guy throws a ball like not many people can. Tightest spiral I've ever seen."

Carter's often goofing around before practice, flicking darts 40 or 50 yards downfield, as easily as the real quarterbacks warm up.

He was a highly recruited run-pass quarterback out of Caldwell (Texas) High. Texas' Mack Brown called and asked him to play wideout for the Longhorns, but he declined. A&M called, and offered a chance, but the Aggies had this guy named Reggie McNeal in front of him, so that path was blocked.

So he played running back, safety, corner, receiver, returned kicks. Whatever.

"It was tough to switch over, because it was like breaking up with your girlfriend after a long time," Carter said. "But once you switch, you have to take it seriously and try to cash in on being able to do this. Sometimes I have to remember that I've only been playing this position five years now."

That's why he's always hanging around the old guys in practice. He said Muhammad's taught him how to use his solid 6-foot, 205-pound frame to create space. Smith's schooling him on how to place his hands, and how he can use his head to keep defensive backs off balance.

But Carter said his past as the guy throwing the passes helps, too.

"Coming from quarterback and playing wide receiver, you don't complain about not getting the ball as much," he said with a grin. "You know there are certain things the quarterback saw that threw him off of you. There might have been a linebacker buzzing to the left. The wideout might think he's open, but the quarterback knows if he throws it, it might get picked.

"You want the ball, but you understand it if it doesn't come your way."

Of course, it's going to come his way a lot, starting tonight.

Between injuries, age and looming suspensions, Carter might get some snaps with the starters and will get plenty of time with the twos in tonight's preseason opener. He's also going to return both kicks and punts. "Any spot with the ball in my hands," he said. "I feel good."

But as important as tonight is, the thing that's separated Carter from those before him comes from what he did in practice a year ago. He's made plays and stood out in regular season practices against starters, not just during the hot August days which are the province of third-stringers.

He's already shown he's on the verge of belonging long-term, now he just has to prove it again.

"I just approach it as another chance to prepare for an opportunity, and if you're not prepared, it might embarrass you," he said. "I always took the approach last year that, I love football so much that of course you want to play, but if you can't you might as well get your teammates ready.

"I always take the approach that whenever you step between those lines it's game-time anyway. So I try to approach every practice like a game."