Dayton Fliers: Rays of light

In football, an 0-3 start feels like walking through a blizzard with all signs to safe shelter buried under a snow. The weight of each loss piles up, and it becomes harder and harder to find light.

So it may be only a flicker, but the play of several rookies has been encouraging as the Panthers try to climb out.

A number of young players have roles in the improved performance of the special teams units, which is evident on the field and by the numbers. The Panthers are first in the NFL in opponents' kickoff return average, fourth in net punting average and 10th in average drive start for kickoff returns. A year ago, they were 30th, 24th, and 21st in those categories.

Greg Hardy, Jordan Pugh and Robert McClain are among the rookies playing roles in the improvement. It was Hardy whose blocked punt in the opener at the New York Giants was so solid that it went through the end zone like it had been shot out of a Howitzer.

That was Carolina's first blocked punt in six years, and Hardy just missed a second one last week against Cincinnati. Hardy has also been a presence on defense, where he is tied for second on the team in quarterback hurries and has caused a fumble.

Pugh has found playing time on defense as well, but it is a fellow Texas college product – wide receiver David Gettis – who has come the farthest. A sixth-round choice, Gettis arrived from Baylor at May's mini-camp as a raw product but has worked his way up the depth chart to start the last two games.

The numbers are still modest at five catches for 50 yards, but the talent isn't. With good height at 6-3 and track speed, Gettis is quickly refining his skills. Another rookie receiver, Brandon LaFell, also is making the adjustment to the pro game and gave a hint of his potential with a 44-yard catch against the Bengals.

The trigger man for both rookie receivers last week was Jimmy Clausen.  His starting debut was not storybook, but while two fumbled snaps and an interception did not give reason to blow up balloons, a second-half showing that featured 174 passing yards and 15 first downs did not deflate anyone's hopes.

Like Kurt Warner trying to master dance moves on television, there will be more missteps for Clausen in the coming weeks, but if he can make enough plays in the passing game, it could help get the Panthers running game back to form.

It won't get any easier for Clausen, his rookie teammates or the Panthers on Sunday when they play at New Orleans. The Saints defense is the same one that made Brett Favre's life miserable in the NFC Championship. The experience gap between the Panthers quarterback and the Vikings future Hall of Famer is about 300 NFL games.

Playing against the NFL's reigning champs on the road is the supreme test -- and an opportunity to find rays of light.

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