Unless you are a diehard NFL fan, you probably had never heard of Haruki Nakamura when the Panthers signed him this offseason.
Nakamura, a former Baltimore safety, apprenticed for four years behind Ed Reed as a Raven. Reed is one of the best in the game, which means Nakamura had to mostly be content with special teams and spot duty.
So let’s get Panthers linebacker Jon Beason to give a quick scouting report on Nakamura.
“Real smart,” Beason said. “Understands football. Kind of reminds me of Chris Harris, but with a lot more ability.”
Harris has started 88 games in the NFL, half of those for Carolina in 2007-09. He once forced eight fumbles in a season and had five interceptions in another. Harris was far from the most athletic safety ever, but was a hard hitter and very good at getting teammates lined up correctly.
So that’s pretty high praise from Beason for Nakamura, who is trying to wrest a starting job away from Sherrod Martin (Charles Godfrey shouldn’t have much trouble holding on to the other safety spot).
Nakamura is not very big, but he has a reputation for toughness.
Asked to describe himself, he said: “When I get a chance to hit somebody, I’m going to do it. I may be a 5-10, 200-pound guy, but I don’t shy away from much.”
His background is interesting – you don’t find many players of Japanese descent in the NFL. Nakamura’s late father was an eighth-degree black belt in judo, the player said, and immigrated to the U.S. late in life to teach that sport.
His mother was a fourth-degree black belt in judo, and he and his older brother Yoshi were national-level competitors in the junior ranks.
“It’s in our blood,” Nakamura said. “I was a national champion as a junior. My father’s ultimate goal was for us to be Olympic judo champions, but he passed away when we were younger (Nakamura was 5 years old when his father died). So we never got the opportunity to get there.”
Nakamura, who grew up in Cleveland and went to school at Cincinnati, said a big reason he signed his three-year, $4.8 million contract with the Panthers was the chance to be a starter for the first time in his NFL career.
Said Nakamura: “It’s also a chance to go with a new team and build something, with a guy like Cam Newton at quarterback and great defensive leaders like Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. It’s not like I’m walking into a situation where it’s horrible. This is a great, great football team.”
Well, that’s stretching it – the Panthers went 6-10 in 2011 and their defense was ranked 28th in the NFL while giving up franchise highs in points and yards. But Nakamura is a self-described “high-energy guy” and it’s easy to see his enthusiasm.
Nakamura said switching from the Ravens’ 3-4 defense to the Panthers’ 4-3 has posed some challenges but that in the end “it’s just football.”
If Nakamura does start over Martin, it may be in part because he’s able to spit out the defensive signals quickly and get the secondary aligned fast, taking some of the responsibility for that away from Godfrey.
“I’m excited to be here,” Nakamura said. “I’ve been on a team in Baltimore that went to the playoffs four straight years. And after seeing this and what we’re capable of, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be five in a row.”
You’ve got to love the attitude, anyway. And if Nakamura really does turn out to be a better version of Chris Harris, the Panthers got an offseason steal.