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2013 Carolina Panthers | Defense

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Carolina Panthers’ Haruki Nakamura battling to get his spot back

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SPARTANBURG Panthers safety Haruki Nakamura lost his starting job and lost a lot of money.

He hasn’t lost his fighting spirit.

Despite a difficult 2012 in his first season with Carolina, Nakamura has kept a positive outlook – even as he’s seen his starting spot and hundreds of thousands of dollars slip away. He said he’s always been a humble guy, and last season served as another lesson in humility.

“If you approach this game in any sort of cocky manner, it’s going to drop you on your head,” Nakamura said after Thursday’s practice. “It’s just the way the NFL is.”

This time a year ago, Nakamura was on his way to winning the free safety job after signing a three-year, $4.8 million contract after four seasons as Ed Reed’s backup in Baltimore. A couple of big misplays – including two in a Week 4 loss at Atlanta – reduced him to a part-time role.

Nakamura, whose father was Japan’s Olympic judo coach, ended up sharing time with Sherrod Martin. Nakamura played in running situations and Martin came in on obvious passing downs.

“Of course it’s tough. You go from starting full-time to splitting time. Nobody really likes that situation,” Nakamura said. “But did it benefit the team? Absolutely. Was it something that they felt needed to happen? Absolutely. For them, they’ve got to make that decision. This is their job, too.”

After Dave Gettleman was hired as the general manager in January, one of his first moves was to restructure Nakamura’s contract. Nakamura took a pay cut of nearly $600,000 in guaranteed base salary.

“It’s a tough experience. When money’s taken away from you, I think in anybody’s situation, it’s not fun,” he said. “But when you’re doing it for the big picture, that’s an easy decision. It wasn’t that tough of a deal for me.”

Nakamura was one of seven players asked to restructure by Gettleman, who inherited a roster that was $16 million over the salary cap. The Panthers now are an estimated $13 million under the cap.

“The way we were (with) the cap, we’re lucky a lot of different things didn’t happen, a lot of older guys (didn’t get cut),” Nakamura said. “I think he realizes the group of guys that are here are dedicated, committed to the team. I think he realized what kind of core we have here. We have a winning core. We just have to do it.”

Among the few free agents acquired by Gettleman was former Oakland strong safety Mike Mitchell, who has been working with the first-team defense alongside returning free safety Charles Godfrey.

With his reduced salary, most expect Nakamura to be strictly a special teams player this season. He’s been working almost exclusively with the second team at both safety spots.

He’s not counting himself out.

“I feel like I’m competing for a starting position, as anybody else is on our defense, offense and special teams,” he said.

“Everybody knows I can play special teams. I’ve always been known as a pretty (darned) good special teams player, and I’ve always prided myself in that. That’s without question. If they ask me to do that, that’s what I do.

“I’m just like anybody else, though, in our secondary. We’re all competing. We’re all trying to get that starting spot.”

Coach Ron Rivera said he appreciates Nakamura’s attitude.

“He’s not giving anything up and he’s been great about it. And he has worked very hard,” Rivera said. “He’s worked with all the (defensive backs), he’s worked with all the safety combinations we’ve had. There’s a lot of confidence in what Haruki can do.

“Mentally, he’s as sharp a safety as I’ve been around.”

Nakamura has put together a strong camp. He’s moving well, reading routes and getting his hands on a lot of passes.

“Just running to the ball. That’s it,” he said. “It’s a simple game.”

A humbling game, too, as Nakamura can attest.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

Complete Carolina Panthers coverage from The Charlotte Observer at CharlotteObserver.com/panthers
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