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Ihmir Smith-Marsette provides a highlight with punt return touchdown

Ihmir Smith-Marsette

CHICAGO – Ihmir Smith-Marsette had a split-second to make his move.

Immediately after corralling Bears punter Trenton Gill's booming punt with 5:58 left in the first quarter, Smith-Marsette dashed to his left to avoid Bears gunner Josh Blackwell crashing in for a tackle.

Re-gaining his balance, he cut, then executed a juke that stalled Bears long snapper Patrick Scales just enough in pursuit. That's all Smith-Marsette needed to burn the Bears 79 yards for his first career punt return for a touchdown in the Panthers' eventual 16-13 loss at Soldier Field on Thursday.

The effort gave the Panthers the initial 7-0 lead.

"The only thing I can say is 'I can go up from here,'" Smith-Marsette said. "It's the first one and not the last one. So, I'm definitely going to keep working to get better each and every week. That one [play] was good, but I still feel like I left a lot out there. I can only build upon it. That's really all I can think about."

Panthers rookie defensive back D'Shawn Jamison, who was feet away from Smith-Marsette upon his initial cut, did his part to get it started.

"He's very elusive," Jamison said. "When the ball is in his hands, he's going to get to work, so we just had to make sure we all covered down and make sure we made key blocks. [Special Teams Coordinator Chris] Tabor always emphasizes doing your 1/11th. That's the main thing, so just make sure you do your job, and that's all I try to focus on and give my all on special teams."

The spark represented a building block for a team needing more of them over time.

"We're going to keep pounding, and we're going to keep getting better," Jamison said. "[We've] got plays out there we can make, and we're going to make them."

Smith-Marsette has embraced his special teams role as punt returner.

"I love it, actually," Smith-Marsette said. "I take a lot of pride in it because it's a part of the game that is not really big in terms of, like watching the game — people [see] punt[s]; fair catches. There's a lot of fair catches and stuff going on, but I take pride in it. That's why I just go out there. Every chance I get, I just try to make smart decisions. And then, when an opportunity presents itself, try to get a return and set up the offense for better field position."

While it ultimately remains to be seen if his special teams play will translate to more offensive opportunities, Smith-Marsette hopes "it works out like that."

"That's something the coaches got to work out. I don't really play offense at all ... I hope it works out like that and I get to show my talents on offense moving forward," Smith-Marsette said. "That's something bigger than me. I've got no control over that. What [coaches] decide to do is what they decide to do. I'm just waiting for my opportunities."

The returned punt for Smith-Marsette is a positive moment in the third-year wideout's budding career. Smith-Marsette, a former Bear receiver, was released by the team in October of 2022 following a 29-22 loss to the Minnesota Vikings due to a fumble on special teams.

"It's just how the game goes," Smith-Marsette said about the end of his Bears tenure. "They [weren't] happy with what happened. They decided to move on. It's nothing I can do about that. All I can do is just go somewhere else and take advantage of my opportunities. It just so happened that this opportunity came from Carolina, and I got a punt return against the Bears. It's nothing more and nothing less ... it's not really a big deal."

View all the action from the Panthers' game against the Chicago Bears in Week 10 of the regular season.

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