SPARTANBURG Panthers safety Haruki Nakamura lost his starting job and lost a lot of money.
He hasnt lost his fighting spirit.
Despite a difficult 2012 in his first season with Carolina, Nakamura has kept a positive outlook even as hes seen his starting spot and hundreds of thousands of dollars slip away. He said hes 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, its going to drop you on your head, Nakamura said after Thursdays practice. Its 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 Reeds 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 Japans 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 its 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, theyve 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 Nakamuras contract. Nakamura took a pay cut of nearly $600,000 in guaranteed base salary.
Its a tough experience. When moneys taken away from you, I think in anybodys situation, its not fun, he said. But when youre doing it for the big picture, thats an easy decision. It wasnt 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, were lucky a lot of different things didnt happen, a lot of older guys (didnt 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. Hes been working almost exclusively with the second team at both safety spots.
Hes not counting himself out.
I feel like Im 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. Ive always been known as a pretty (darned) good special teams player, and Ive always prided myself in that. Thats without question. If they ask me to do that, thats what I do.
Im just like anybody else, though, in our secondary. Were all competing. Were all trying to get that starting spot.
Coach Ron Rivera said he appreciates Nakamuras attitude.
Hes not giving anything up and hes been great about it. And he has worked very hard, Rivera said. Hes worked with all the (defensive backs), hes worked with all the safety combinations weve had. Theres a lot of confidence in what Haruki can do.
Mentally, hes as sharp a safety as Ive been around.
Nakamura has put together a strong camp. Hes moving well, reading routes and getting his hands on a lot of passes.
Just running to the ball. Thats it, he said. Its a simple game.
A humbling game, too, as Nakamura can attest.
Joseph Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson
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