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Opportunity knocks for undrafted cornerback Cole Luke

Posted Jul 29, 2017

With a pair of nickel backs injured, the Panthers have turned to a guy who was just hoping to win a job.

SPARTANBURG, S.C. - Guys like Cole Luke need to catch some breaks.

An undrafted rookie out of Notre Dame, Luke flew well under the radar this spring. But during Saturday's training camp practice, he was again taking reps as the Panthers' No. 1 nickel corner.

Luke's rapid rise on the depth chart is mostly due to injuries ahead of him. A sore hamstring has kept presumed starter Captain Munnerlyn on the sideline, and fifth-round rookie Corn Elder is expected to miss at least a month with a patella stress fracture. With 2016 fifth-rounder Zack Sanchez still apparently out of favor with the coaches, that's left the door wide open for Luke.

"And he's taking advantage," head coach Ron Rivera said. "He had a real good day at practice, and he's a young guy that we see growing in that role."

After first turning heads Friday, Luke's Saturday included an interception in 7-on-7 drills and multiple pass breakups in team periods.

The nephew of former Cowboys safety and five-time Pro Bowler Darren Woodson, Luke began building himself into a rising prospect during solid sophomore and junior seasons at Notre Dame. But his star lost much of its luster as he and the Irish secondary struggled mightily in 2016. A mediocre Pro Day, which included a less-than-impressive 4.64 40-yard dash, didn't help.

While Luke never heard from a team that planned to draft him, he did field free agent calls from the Panthers, Bears and Buccaneers. Carolina offered the best opportunity to compete at nickel, a slot he slid into as a senior, and still the most underappreciated spot on an NFL defense.

"It's definitely a hard position," Luke said. "It's not safety, but it's not corner.

"Safeties are the quarterbacks of the defense, but nickel, you've got to know a lot of positions. Corner, it's kind of like you're on an island by yourself. So nickel's a little different."

At 5-foot-11, Luke doesn't have the size the Panthers and many other teams want in an outside corner. But he's a good tackler and, as we've seen so far in Spartanburg, he has good instincts and ball skills.

"When you watch him, he anticipates nicely," Rivera said. "You see him get himself in position, and any time you put yourself in position, you've got a chance to make a play."

From Andrew Norwell to Dean Marlowe to Jeremy Cash, the Panthers seemed to save at least one roster spot for an undrafted surprise in the Dave Gettleman era. And while the second Marty Hurney era is just underway, Luke is taking advantage of the kind of breaks an undrafted guy needs to stick around.

"It's definitely an adjustment," he said, "but I'm enjoying this opportunity I have and trying to make the most of it."