You never forget how it feels to get your first NFL sack, or so says Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Well, I’d like to add a side note to that: You never forget how it feels to watch a rookie linebacker’s face light up when he talks about his first NFL sack.
When Jermaine Carter Jr. talked about taking down Josh Allen, for a 6-yard loss in the third quarter of Carolina’s 28-23 victory against Buffalo on Thursday night, I saw what he must have looked like as a kid. I imagined how he must have looked while sprinting without direction and screaming with unfiltered enthusiasm in his backyard in Maryland.
Back then, he might have felt invincible. The fastest man alive; the king of whatever patch of grass, sidewalk or basketball court he occupied.
Thursday night, he got to feel it again.
“It was kind of surprising,” he said, little giggles leaking out of him from time to time as he broke down the play. “Coming out of college, I was like the main guy. So everyone on the field was like ‘make sure you block him.’
“But when I came free it was totally unexpected. I was kind of surprised. But I was glad I was able to get my first sack, my first sack in the preseason. I’m looking forward to more.”
The elation afterward was easy, but Carter prepared well to put himself into position.
“I was watching a lot of extra film before this game,” he said. “I want my coaches and my teammates to feel like they can put me on the field. I play as hard as I can whenever I’m on the field.”
That additional time seemed to pay off. He had the big sack, the second of the preseason for Carolina, but he still took a half to settle in and his play fluctuated a little. He flew downfield for two clutch special teams tackles, but was penalized for a hit with a lowered helmet on a different play.
But by the end of the third quarter, Carter looked downright comfortable. He looked fast. He looked confident.
“He played with a lot of heart,” said veteran linebacker Shaq Thompson of Carter. “Confidence. He was everywhere on every tackle. Right run fits. Right drop fits. Right man coverage fits — he was spot on.”
Oh, and he nearly added a second sack to his stat sheet while hassling Allen deep into the backfield on fourth down.
“On that play specifically, I knew it was fourth and short and that they have a tendency to run some bootlegs,” he said. “In my mind, I wasn’t going to let him get outside of me. I was going to chase him down like I did.”
That happy, running-for-joy kid in the backyard was a menace on Thursday.
“I like to think that everybody is surprised that I can move like that,” he said. “I’ve been an underdog my whole life. It keeps a chip on my shoulder and I just want to show everybody, not just my teammates, not just my coaches, that I can play football.”
Carter, a fifth-round pick in April, has been learning from the veterans throughout camp, and has a real shot to make the 53-man roster next month.
Carter and Thompson, who made a diving interception, combined for two of the Panthers’ three biggest defensive plays (defensive tackle Vernon Butler also had a sack).
It’s not often that a rookie gets to help set the tone of what Carolina expects from its defense once the regular season begins.
But peg Carter as not only talented, but genuinely ecstatic to be able to take the field and run, and be a catalyst, as the Panthers expect their linebackers to be.
He might have been googly-eyed over his first sack. He might never forget it.
But something tells me it won’t be his last.