Carolina Panthers

Panthers throw Tyler Larsen into spotlight in wake of ‘catastrophe’

From an undrafted free agent to third-string center, Carolina Panthers center Tyler Larsen (69) gets his chance in tough circumstances Sunday night at Seattle.
From an undrafted free agent to third-string center, Carolina Panthers center Tyler Larsen (69) gets his chance in tough circumstances Sunday night at Seattle. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Carolina Panthers center Tyler Larsen couldn’t keep from cracking into a giant grin after practice at San Jose State on Wednesday.

“I mean, I’m just excited. It’s been a long three years of trying to get my foot in the door. And now I have that opportunity,” he said. Larsen, the Panthers’ third-string center, will likely make his first start against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. It will be just the fourth NFL game in his career.

It doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand how solemn his current situation is. Head coach Ron Rivera referred to it earlier this week as a ‘catastrophe” — veteran Pro-Bowl center Ryan Kalil has to have shoulder surgery and the Panthers put both him and backup Gino Gradkowski (knee) on injured reserve this week. Larsen stepped in in the second half of Carolina’s loss to the Raiders after Gradkowski went down.

The Panthers signed two offensive tackles this week in former New England Patriots guard/center Ryan Wendell and offensive tackle Dan France, who was on the Cleveland Browns’ practice squad. But it’s more than likely Larsen will be the guy snapping to Newton on Sunday night.

“Tyler Larsen is a ‘veteran young guy,’ ” said head coach Ron Rivera, referring to Larsen’s three-year voyage through three NFL systems as an undrafted free agent out of Utah State in 2014. He was also released and re-signed to the Panthers practice squad in October, and then was promoted to the active roster in early November.

“He’s been through it,” said Rivera. “He played the position all four years in college, I know it’s a little bit different in the NFL. He’s done a nice job, he has handled it very well. I’m pretty excited about him getting his opportunity.”

Kalil has been crucially important to setting the offensive line and calling out defensive fronts. Quarterback Cam Newton said after Kalil was initially hurt in October that he’s his ‘Mike,’ meaning he’s his middle linebacker in terms of leading the offense.

“He’s one of the best players at his position in the NFL,” said Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll on a conference call on Wednesday. “He might be the best center. When you lose that caliber of player, you don’t just lose the physical play. You lose the leadership and the smarts and all that.”

Larsen added that he and Newton had been increasing snaps all week.

“Now that I’m reppin’ with him, we are getting that (amount) up a lot more,” he said. “We feel pretty comfortable with each other.”

But that’s only a part of the battle.

Rivera said that the task of setting the line will still fall on Larsen, which is crucial because of the shuffling of the other spots on the line in recent weeks.

“It’s really important. It’s huge shoes to fill with Ryan (Kalil),” said Larsen, who also called Kalil one of the greatest ever to play. “We can’t skip a beat at all, no matter who is in there. ... Just need to get everyone on the same page. It’s going to be an extremely loud atmosphere, probably one I haven’t seen before. We just got to be on the same page, and if everyone is on the same page, something will work out. We know that.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue

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