NFL: Help wanted sign for Panthers

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Associated Press
SPARTANBURG, S.C. ó Maake Kemoeatu sat in the shade off to the side of Carolina’s practice field Tuesday, his right leg extended and wrapped in an air cast. A pair of crutches rested on a folding chair next to him.
A day after completely tearing his Achilles’ tendon, the Panthers’ largest player and top run-stuffer could only watch a group of inexperienced defensive tackles try to replace him.
“Bummed out,” Kemoeatu said, his face partially hidden under a floppy hat. “I wasn’t coming into camp expecting to get hurt on the first day. But that’s all a part of football. The Carolina Panthers will move on. We’re going to do good.”
Kemoeatu is scheduled for surgery Wednesday, but remains hopeful that “maybe I’ll make it back for the last month of the season.” Kemoeatu hasn’t been placed on injured reserve, and coach John Fox said the Panthers will consider holding a roster spot for him.
For now, Fox and new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks are more concerned with finding an immediate replacement at a position the salary cap-strapped Panthers had almost no depth entering camp.
Nick Hayden, who played in two games as a rookie last season, worked with the first team Tuesday. Behind him are undrafted rookies Marlon Favorite and Lonnie Harvey, and Lorenzo Williams, who had a short stint on Carolina’s practice squad last season.
“It’s going to be tough, but people have got to step up like myself and other players on the team have to step up,” Hayden said. “We’ve just got to do the best job we can do right now.”
The Panthers will likely have to find a veteran tackle somewhere, either by signing a player not in the league or through a trade. They could also perhaps move Corvey Irvin, designated now as Damione Lewis’ backup at the other defensive tackle spot.
“They haven’t talked to me at all about it,” Irvin said. “I’m still learning my craft over there. Nobody has talked to me about playing nose.”
The 6-foot-5, 345-pound Kemoeatu had lined up over the center the past two seasons in Carolina after being signed away from Baltimore. He clogged the middle and was the key component of Carolina’s run defense.
His absence in Carolina’s key late-season game against the New York Giants was evident when the Panthers allowed 301 yards rushing in an overtime loss. That was the first NFL game for Hayden, a sixth-round pick last year.
“I’m coming out this year head high, knowing my position on the field, knowing my technique better, knowing the defense a little better even though it’s newer,” Hayden said. “Just going by that, the confidence level is a lot better.”
Meeks, who had success in Indianapolis using smaller, quicker players on the defensive line, may have to use that style without the mammoth Kemoeatu.
“We might have to,” Meeks said. “You want to base things on the skill set of the players you have. You don’t want to force players to do something they can’t do. We’ll look at the situation and sit down and talk about and see what happens. But first we want to find out what is going on with the big fella.”
Kemoeatu was clearly frustrated with his fate. Eager to turn around Carolina’s dismal defensive performance at the end of last season, he didn’t make it to the first team drill on the opening practice of training camp Monday.
“I felt it tightening up,” Kemoeatu said. “In the pursuit drill we’ve got to run to the line. I had about five yards left to go so I thought I would push through it. I took another two steps and it just popped off.”
It wasn’t until later when trainers told Kemoeatu “you may have lost your Achilles”‘ that he realized his season might be over.
“I’m holding onto everything I can on that little hope that I can still make it back on the field and play with the boys,” Kemoeatu said. “We’ll see.”
The Panthers may not have the luxury of holding a spot on the 53-man roster, not with so little depth and such a big body to replace.
“It’s a huge loss, a run-plugger like Kemo, eight-year vet,” safety Chris Harris said. “To lose him the first day of practice is a little devastating. One of the young guys they brought in on the defensive line is going to have to step up. We’re going to need him to play.”