(Updates. With AP Photos.)By STEPHEN HAWKINSAP Sports Writer
Bruce Carter’s rookie year with the Dallas Cowboys was more like a redshirt season.
That is what the Cowboys expected when they used their 2011 second-round draft pick on the linebacker coming off a knee injury. He was on the non-injury list through training camp and came back for the final 10 games as primarily a contributor on special teams.
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”He did all of that stuff and he showed flashes of what we saw in college during that time working on special teams,” coach Jason Garrett said. ”And then we felt like this offseason was going to be really big for him. And he’s really, really accepted the challenge to step up and compete for that starting spot.”
Carter knows this is his chance to show what he can do and prove that the Cowboys didn’t make a mistake picking him 40th overall even knowing they would have to wait for him to get healthy. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Carter is playing inside linebacker for the Cowboys after being an outside linebacker at North Carolina.
He got to training camp this year competing with veteran free-agent addition Dan Connor to start opposite Sean Lee. For the first play of the Cowboys’ preseason opener this week at Oakland, all three of the inside linebackers were on the field.
”I’m just excited to get out here. It’s been, it feels like forever for me that I actually even played football,” Carter said. ”To get out here and showcase my talents and just play football, and go out there and have fun. I don’t really think it’s any pressure. … I’m just trying to show the coaches that I can play, come out here and compete as much as I can.”
Throughout camp, Carter and Connor have been sharing snaps with the first-team defense. Carter has had several standout plays, including intercepting a pass thrown by Tony Romo that he returned for what would have been a touchdown.
”He’s the guy we thought he was when we drafted him,” defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. ”He was outstanding athletically (in college). But his scheme was a little different. I think he’ll make more plays for us than he did for them. … I think he’ll be a better factor inside than outside.”
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has noticed as well, telling reporters unsolicited one day about the progress Carter is making.
After starting 44 of his 49 games at North Carolina, Carter sustained a season-ending ACL injury in his left knee late in his senior season that required reconstructive surgery and sidelined him for several months. Though he didn’t miss any offseason workouts with the Cowboys because of the NFL lockout last summer, he was on the non-football injury list from the start of training camp until being activated in late October.
”I used that time to get my body back,” Carter said. ”I was still rehabbing so I just tried to get my strength and my legs back.”
Carter got only limited snaps on defense and had only one tackle after he made his Cowboys debut. But Carter said the extensive time on special teams gave him a chance to get used to the speed of the NFL and how the game operates.
In addition to the physical workouts since last season, Carter also spent plenty of time – with Lee and Connor, and on his own – learning Ryan’s complex defensive scheme.
”Just like in OTAs, he’s gotten better each day with experience,” Lee said. ”He’s got athleticism, he knows how to play the game. He’s just getting that experience that he needs, and he’s putting the work in, he’s putting the study time in, and it’s a matter of time before he’s going to be a really good football player, and he’s showing it right now.”
Garrett said Lee, who like Carter had to overcome an ACL injury in college, has great dedication and intensity in how he works every day. The coaches believe Carter is seeing that and following suit.
”I’m seeing the real player now,” Ryan said. ”Before, I know he was helping a lot on special teams, he wasn’t doing a whole lot for us on defense. We’d have like a limited package put a couple of calls in, and that’s why his production was down, he wasn’t ready. But he looks like a real player now.”