What a difference a year makes.
In the case of second-year Carolina Panthers receiver Curtis Samuel, there isn’t really any other way to categorize it.
When the Panthers hosted the Dolphins in Week 10 last season, it ended with a rousing 45-21 Carolina victory ... and Samuel injured. After Samuel dropped a pass in the end zone, a Dolphins defender rolled onto his ankle, taking him out of the game.
Then came the diagnosis — a broken bone, but also ligament damage and season-ending surgery.
Samuel, 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, spent much of the past year rehabbing, working patiently with hopes of being ready for the start of the regular season. And while that moment is still weeks away, Friday’s preseason contest — an eventual 27-20 Carolina victory — at least gave Samuel a rematch against the team that injured him.
“When I first walked out on the field, I went down to the spot where I got hurt and I’m like, ‘Oh, man, this is crazy. Last year, I got hurt in this exact spot,’” Samuel said. “My goal was just to go out there, have fun and enjoy the moment.”
Based on Samuel’s postgame antics in the locker room, it certainly seemed like mission accomplished. As Cam Newton blasted Adele and the rest of his “drip playlist,” Samuel sang along through the entire chorus.
It was a fun moment, but for Panthers fans, the real fun was likely seeing Samuel back in action.
Against the Dolphins this time around, Samuel showcased why the Panthers made him a second-round pick out of Ohio State: his ridiculous speed. He finished the night with just two receptions but gained 65 yards. On the second catch, a deep ball down the right sideline, Samuel stayed stride-for-stride with the cornerback for most of his route, only to pull away right at the last second.
Boom — 39 yards, just like that.
“I’m a fast guy, so I’m gonna use my speed to my advantage,” Samuel said. “I’m going to give you a little move at the line, and then I’m going to take off. Then I just hope the quarterback looks my way and throws me the ball.”
Samuel said the fact that he’s already back in the Panthers’ rotation at receiver has him encouraged. While the team was busy adding Torrey Smith, Jarius Wright and D.J. Moore this offseason, Samuel just focused on himself and his rehab. That meant listening to trainers as far as not rushing back too quickly but also staying on top of Norv Turner’s offense for when he returned.
Now that he’s done that, and with his ankle mostly healed, Samuel said he’s got his confidence back.
“It’s pretty high, but that’s how it’s supposed to be,” he said. “I feel like I’m a special player, so it’s just up to me to go out there and show it.
“I’ve got goals. I think about them every time I step out on the field, what I envision for myself ... and in order for me to accomplish those, I have to go out on the field and compete.”