Fried chicken, mac ’n’ cheese and collard greens. That's the home-cooked meal of choice for Jermaine Carter Jr., who is no stranger to Southern cooking.
Even though the middle linebacker has spent most of his life in Maryland — where he was born and played four years of college football — Carter’s family is originally from North Carolina. He grew up on the cooking of his grandmother, who still lives in Charlotte.
But two weeks into his time as a Carolina Panther, after the team selected him in the fifth round of last month’s NFL draft, there’s one staple Carter has yet to try.
“I’ve actually never had Bojangles’,” he admitted.
On the football field, however, Carter is ready and willing to try anything Carolina wants from him.
Tuesday morning marked the first day of organized team activities for the Panthers, and the first full-team practice of Carter’s career. He has already gone through many meetings, walkthroughs and other forms of practice, but the start of OTAs still felt different.
“I ain’t going to say I was nervous coming out,” he said. “But it was like, ‘Wow, I’m on the same practice field as guys like Greg Olsen and Cam Newton.’”
At Maryland, Carter started 37 consecutive games at middle linebacker, which spanned every game of his sophomore, junior and senior years. He became the fifth Maryland player since 1969 to lead the team in tackles for three straight years, averaging 101 per season.
Carter was also a two-time team captain and three-time honorable mention for the All-Big 10 Team. At Maryland, most of his coverage duties came in the middle of the field, either in hook zones or man-to-man defense on running backs.
"Jermaine is a guy who was the leader of the team up there," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. "He is a very instinctive, physical downhill-type linebacker who has decent movement skills. We think he can help provide depth inside for us."
But the Panthers have already been moving Carter around, too. He said he’s been taking reps at the big nickel position, frequented by Shaq Thompson, and at outside linebacker. At 6-foot-1, Carter is slightly undersized for a middle linebacker, but that and his 4.69 40-yard dash could play to his advantage in other roles.
“As a nickel in college, I didn’t do much dropping into the flat,” he said. “Now, as the nickel, you have to cover No. 2 (receivers), be outside of the box. Those are some things I have to work on, but I look forward to the challenge. I don’t back down from anything.”
The most natural opening for Carter would be as a special teamer. With Thomas Davis suspended for the Panthers’ first four games for a performance-enhancing drugs violation, linebacker David Mayo will likely shift from a special teams role to a direct backup for Luke Kuechly and Thompson.
Mayo played a team-high 309 special teams snaps last season, as compared to just 133, or 13.4 percent, of the snaps on defense. Carter, who dabbled in special teams at Maryland, knows he could fill that void if Mayo sees an increase in defensive snaps.
“I’m willing to do whatever I have to do to be a part of the team,” he said. “Whatever I’ve got to do to make the 53-man roster, that’s what I’m willing to do. I know I have to come in here and pay my dues on special teams, and everything else will come later.”
Carter credited D.J. Durkin, his head coach at Maryland, for implementing an NFL-esque, detailed schedule that has helped his transition to the pros. He has meshed well with the rest of the Panthers’ rookie class, which includes D.J. Moore, his college teammate of three years; Marquis Haynes, who trained with Carter in New Jersey ahead of the combine; and Andre Smith, a fellow linebacker.
And as for Kuechly and Davis, his veteran Pro Bowl teammates?
“I’m just watching every move they make,” he said. “I’m not much of a talker, so I haven’t reached out to them much, but I do watch from a distance. I see how they work, so I want to model myself.”
Carter’s grandparents in Charlotte have Panthers season tickets, and he expects his family, which includes four siblings, to come down for some games as well. Until then, the 161st overall pick of the draft, nicknamed "Pee Wee," will continue to soak up knowledge from those around him — and take reps wherever he is needed.
Carter seems willing to try anything on the field. Maybe, Bojangles' will be next.