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Carter emerges at LB for Cowboys
He just didn't feel like one.
Recovery from knee surgery forced Carter to miss the first six games of his rookie season. When he returned, he barely touched the field as a linebacker. Carter was instead used almost exclusively on special teams.
"It was definitely tough, especially not being able to play (defense) and coming in so late," Carter told FOXSports.com on Wednesday at team headquarters. "You just want to keep working, take mental reps and try and stay as focused as you can so when that time comes you'll be ready."
That time has come — and Carter has proven more than ready.
Carter enters Sunday's game against visiting Tampa Bay (1 p.m. ET, FOX) coming off a 10-tackle performance in a 27-7 loss to Seattle. Alongside another former Cowboys second-round pick, Carter and Sean Lee have already shown potential to become a dominant 3-4 inside linebacking duo like Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman in San Francisco.
Carter said he tried to take as many "mental reps" as possible last season, but things began to click in the offseason bonding with his position group.
"It started with all the linebackers coming out here and working with our conditioning and keys," Carter said. "We would be doing run drills and call out (play) calls while we're doing it."
The Cowboys made the call to select Carter despite the serious knee injury that ruined his senior year at North Carolina and knocked him from first-round draft consideration. Carter agrees with those who say his rookie campaign served as a "redshirt season," but that didn't mean he enjoyed it.
"It allowed me time to get my body right, learn the (defensive) system and just get familiar with being in the league period," said Carter, 24. "But I was hurt, so I didn't get to do all the stuff to improve myself like everybody else."
Carter's emergence wasn't a given. Dallas signed former Carolina Panthers starter Dan Connor in free agency and planned to have an open competition for the starting spot next to Lee. From the beginning of training camp, Carter has kept Connor relegated to a backup role.
Carter's natural feel for the position is especially impressive considering he didn't begin playing linebacker until college. Carter was a quarterback, running back and safety in high school in Havelock, N.C. He was converted as a freshman under former Tar Heels head coach Butch Davis, who is now on Tampa Bay's staff.
"Things started slowing down for me midway through my freshman year," said Carter, who is looking forward to seeing Davis at Sunday's game. "I went from the guy that's getting hit to the guy that's delivering the hit."
And now Carter is a hit for the Cowboys.