SPARTANBURG Carolina Panthers defensive end Frank Alexander says he doesn’t think about his four-game suspension to start the year. He can’t think about it.
If he does, Alexander will get himself down and won’t be able to focus on getting better.
So he has practiced hard this training camp, and he has practiced well enough to be coach Ron Rivera’s training camp most valuable player.
“I know what I have to do now,” Alexander said. “Once I come back in October, I got to do what I got to do. You can’t think about the four games because if you do, you ain’t getting better because you’re worried about the four-game suspension.”
Alexander, in his third NFL season, must sit out the first four games after violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy this offseason. He didn’t appeal the ruling because there wasn’t anything to appeal.
“I did it,” he said two weeks ago at Wofford College.
But Alexander said he has grown from it as a person and a player, and that the proof of the latter is on the practice field. With Charles Johnson sidelined with a hamstring injury, Alexander has usurped Mario Addison as the primary backup at defensive end.
“At first it was tough like, ‘Dang, I’m missing four games, four checks,’ ” Alexander said. “Everything happens for a reason. These four games made me grow up and started taking my responsibilities better and handling my situation better. It could be a blessing in disguise.”
Rivera doesn’t think it was just the suspension that made things click for Alexander. He said he believes Alexander’s experience, along with the strong 2013 play of undrafted rookie Wes Horton and Addison’s contract extension, gave Alexander the boost he needed.
“He’s a third-year player, and this is about when you start to see if guys really, truly show or if they’ll take a backseat to these other young guys,” Rivera said. “And drafting (second-round defensive end) Kony (Ealy), Wes Horton playing as well as he has, we re-upped Mario Addison. Basically it sends a message no matter how you look at it. Whether it’s intended or not – the message has been sent.
“I think it’s a culmination of a lot of things for him. But the one thing he has done is been very competitive and been very, very consistent.”
Consistency escaped Alexander for his first two seasons with the Panthers. A former co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Alexander had 2 1/2 sacks as a rookie but hit the rookie wall midway through the season.
The lull continued in 2013, when he had just one sack and dropped on the depth chart. He was inactive for four games last season.
Then came news of the suspension May 5. He knew it would come, and mid-afternoon he received a notification from his smartphone’s ESPN app that news had spread.
“You see your name on there and you automatically think the worst because you know everybody has an iPhone or something that gets the notice,” Alexander said. “So all I’m thinking is my mom and my daddy, what are they going to think? There’s a lot of stuff that went through your head.”
Despite the suspension, Alexander can practice with the team during the preseason and play in the exhibitions. The Panthers need him this camp more than they expected with injuries in the position group.
Horton battled a groin injury for more than a week, Addison is coming off the stomach flu and Johnson has had a hamstring injury for two weeks.
“It’s an unfortunate situation, and Frank will grow from that. He’ll be ready when he comes back and he’s taken advantage of the work,” defensive line coach Eric Washington said. “There’s nothing we can do about that (suspension). What he can do is continue to work, grow and improve as a person and football player.”
Alexander will not count against the Panthers’ 53-man roster to begin the season, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be back after Carolina’s Week 4 matchup at Baltimore.
All Alexander can do is show that now, in his third year, he gets it.
“I wanted to show that even though with the adversity I have going on, I’m still going to come to work every day and practice hard,” he said. “I’m still going to give it my all, no matter what the outcome may be.
“Even though I’m going to be down the first four games, I’m still going to do what I can to help the team get better in the preseason. Then when I come in October, hopefully I have shown enough to get back in the swing of things.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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