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Practice squad pays dividends

Posted Dec 21, 2011

CHARLOTTE - To most fans, the eight players that constitute the Panthers' practice squad are an afterthought.

Carolina's coaches, however, think much more highly of the group.

At the least, practice squad players play a significant role in practice as scout players for upcoming opponents.

But this season they've done much more than that, with several former "p-squad" players making a notable impact on game day.

"We don't really bring bodies to just bring bodies; we bring bodies to constantly see if we can improve the bottom portion of our roster," Carolina head coach Ron Rivera said. "You keep these guys because you think they can develop and potentially become a part of your future."

This year, with a franchise-record 16 players on injured reserve, the future is now. Injuries have hit so hard that one player who started the season on the practice squad but ended up on the 53-man roster – offensive lineman Bryant Browning – is now on injured reserve himself.

He was replaced on the active roster last Saturday by offensive lineman Jeff Byers, who became the fifth player who started the regular season on the practice squad to make it onto the Panthers' active roster.

"It's a very competitive group of guys, and everybody wants to be the next guy called up," Byers said. "But when guys get called up, it's usually a positional need though, so we're always happy for guys.

"We're like a brotherhood within the team. We lift together, we sweat together. To see guys continue to get activated, it's a good thing. Our hard work doesn't go unnoticed."

The first of the five call-ups from the original practice squad - defensive end Thomas Keiser – has made the biggest impact among the group. Despite playing in just six games, the rookie from Stanford ranks third on the team with three sacks.

"When I got called up, the practice squad guys said, ‘Represent us well. You're the first one up,' " Keiser said. "I've tried to do that, and everybody has been supportive.

"There is a little bit of a bond there. We're working toward the same thing – which is to be active and be playing – so it's a collective struggle. But we realize that some people are going to get an opportunity before others, and some won't get an opportunity at all."

This season, however, plenty of opportunities arose after Keiser's promotion. Linebacker Kion Wilson – signed to the practice squad after Week 4 – and running back Josh Vaughan were promoted a week after Keiser to help shore up special teams.

Wide receiver Darvin Adams was promoted prior to Week 12 – though he's yet to be active on game day – and Browning was added a week after that.

Prior to the Week 14 game against Atlanta, the Panthers activated defensive tackle Jason Shirley from the practice squad, which he had joined when Keiser was called up.

Shirley, playing for the first time since he was a rookie with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2008, has responded with a sack in each of his first two games.

"Some of them you bring up, and they make an impact right away on your special teams – like a Josh Vaughan who has been tremendous or a Kion Wilson who had been solid for us," Rivera said. "Then Jason Shirley got an opportunity to play and did some nice things. You look for those types of guys, and we've been fortunate that we've had guys like that on our practice squad. They've done a good job for us.

"It also speaks well to the coaches and what they're doing with these young guys after practice, before practice, before games, after meetings. That's all a part of the developmental process that these young guys need to go through."

Byers, who spent 14 games on the Denver Broncos' practice squad as a rookie in 2010 before joining the 53-man roster, was the fifth and perhaps the final original Panthers practice squad member to get the call this season. Tight end Greg Smith still remains, while cornerback Kendric Burney and linebacker Lawrence Wilson have been terminated from the unit.

Byers was active last week at the Houston Texans but did not play, yet it still marked the first regular season game in which he has dressed after countless dress rehearsals.

"Our game day is every day at practice," Byers said of his practice squad experience. "Every day counts, and every day is an opportunity because when you're on the practice squad, you're at the very bottom of the roster. That's the most volatile part of the roster, and every day you're fighting for your job – you truly are.

"All you control is your attitude and effort, and just feel blessed that you're here because there are a lot of guys that would love to even be on practice squad."