Most of the attention surrounding the Carolina Panthers quarterbacks this offseason, especially in the last month, has been focused on new starter Matt Moore, top-draft choice Jimmy Clausen and sixth-round pick Tony Pike.
Lost in the shuffle is Hunter Cantwell, who happens to be second on the depth chart at the position and has the second-most NFL experience among the four signal callers on the roster. But he is O.K. with that.
"It's just a very familiar way of going about things. It has been my path in football," he said. "To be the dark horse in the mix so to speak, I'm going to work as hard as I can to get better and let it all play out. It's something that doesn't bother me."
In fact, Cantwell has been in this situation before. After walking on at Louisville, he spent three years in the shadows of Brian Brohm before finally getting his chance to be a full-time starter as a senior in 2008. He went on to complete 221-of-377 passes for 2,493 yards and 16 touchdowns with 16 interceptions.
While waiting, Cantwell learned the value of patience and gained some experience that will help him in his role with Carolina. Injuries to Brohm forced Cantwell into the starting lineup for the final two games, including the Gator Bowl against Virginia Tech, of his freshman year, and he made two more starts as a sophomore the following season in place of an injured Brohm.
"The biggest thing that it taught me was you always have to be ready. My redshirt freshman year I remember still being very raw, still learning the ins and outs of Coach (Bobby) Petrino's system, which was pretty advanced," Cantwell said. "Then Brian went down the second to the last game of the year, and I had to go out and finish out the year. Then flash forward to the year after that, and Brian went down again and I had to start two games on the road. I played a significant amount of time before I was handed the reins. Through that you just learn to be ready."
The situation repeated itself a year ago when Cantwell (6-foot-4, 236 pounds) signed with the Panthers as an undrafted rookie free agent. With Jake Delhomme, Josh McCown and Moore already on the roster, the odds were stacked against him. However, Cantwell impressed the coaches enough during training camp and the preseason to earn a spot on the practice squad. In two preseason games, he connected on nine-of-16 passes for 120 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions to generate a 101.0 quarterback rating.
"Hunter was a little bit of a surprise as he developed when we got him here. He showed enough skill and potential to keep him on the practice squad and then ultimately activate him toward the end of last year when Jake went on IR (injured reserve)," said Panthers quarterbacks coach Rip Scherer. "He is a big, strong-armed guy and is smart. He can sit in the pocket and make all the throws. He lacks experience and has a lot to learn but has a real eager work ethic."
While spending the first 14 games of his rookie season on the Panthers' practice squad, Cantwell got reps in practice and learned from veterans Delhomme, McCown, Moore and A.J. Feeley. Then he received an early Christmas present on December 24 when the team placed Delhomme on and signed him to the active roster.
"Being able to watch Jake, Matt, A.J. and Josh and how they approached things, whether it was in the meeting room or weight room or in practice. Understanding the ins and outs of what it takes to be an NFL quarterback. Working and striving to get to that and be as good as I felt that I could be. Last year was really, really good for me. It was a big growing time and helped me as a player," Cantwell said. "Being activated at the end of the year, traveling with the team and being the third guy - suiting up and warming up in pregame - was very special and a cool experience. Now, I want to build on that and take it to the next step."
This offseason, taking the next step has meant spending extra time in the quarterbacks meeting room watching film, in the weight room getting stronger and on the practice field improving his mechanics. The native of Paducah, Ky. has spent many hours at Bank of America Stadium since the team's offseason strength and conditioning program began on March 15.
"I think I'm a totally different guy," Cantwell said. "Coach Scherer has been really great bringing me along and showing me the ins and outs of this offense, and I feel like I have a really good grasp of what we're trying to do here. I feel like I'm in the best shape and strongest mentally that I've ever been. I'm throwing the ball as well as I've ever thrown right now and being able to put the ball in tight spots and get it out that much quicker is much more of an advantage for me in my game"
Scherer added, "He spends hours in the meeting room watching tape and preparing himself. He will do nothing but grow as he gets experience. Hunter is improving athletically and continues to work on his foot quickness and movement skills, but I think has a real positive upside."
That upside for the Panthers and Cantwell could mean having another quarterback on the roster in addition to Moore with NFL experience but more importantly is familiar with his role, having been in this situation before.
"You know there is a guy ahead of you that is the guy, and Matt Moore is our quarterback here," Cantwell said. "But going through what I went through in college and last year prepared me. If I am called on to play, I'll be able to step in and be ready to go out and be prepared to play from those experiences."