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Keiser works his way onto field

!CHARLOTTE - After the Carolina Panthers decided to give undrafted rookie defensive end Thomas Keiser a second chance by signing him to their practice squad, Keiser decided that he'd go the extra mile – 100 yards at a time.

"I firmly believed that I was going to have an opportunity at some point during the season, and I wanted to be able to make the best of it. Physical conditioning is key to being able to give your best effort," Keiser said about a commitment he made to run 100-yard sprints on his own after practice. "I had been doing it for a few weeks, sliding off at the end of practice without anybody noticing. But there was some extra walkthrough stuff one day, and I caught their eye at that point."

Carolina's coaches took note of Keiser before he started his running routine, when he made more plays than any other defensive end during preseason play. But when the Panthers had a couple of roster spots to fill a couple of weeks ago, Keiser's extra effort played into the staff's decision, and the Stanford product hasn't disappointed.

In his NFL debut against the Tennessee Titans, Keiser recorded a pair of tackles, including a tackle for loss. Then last week against the Detroit Lions, Keiser recorded his first two sacks.

"He's been a real bright spot the last couple of weeks," Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "He was an unheralded player out of college, but if you've been around practice, you've seen that guy run sprints on his own. He's worked tirelessly to make himself a better football player.

"I talked to him throughout the season, saying, 'Hey, stay ready. Stay ready.' He'd always say, 'Coach, yes sir. I'm going to be ready.' And what do you know? You love a story like that, a guy who has worked his butt off to become a good football player."

Keiser may appear to have come out of nowhere, but he felt more forgotten than unknown after he decided to forgo his final season of college eligibility.

In three seasons at Stanford, Keiser amassed 19.5 sacks and 31.5 tackles for loss, credentials that prompted him to apply for the NFL Draft.

"I definitely expected to be drafted," Keiser said. "It wasn't a good feeling when that didn't happen. A lot of stuff had gone wrong for me during the process leading up to the draft, but I still expected to be picked in the later rounds.

"First off, I wasn't invited to the Combine, so that was one less opportunity to prove myself to the 32 teams. Then on my first 40 at Pro Day, I pulled my hamstring, so I didn't get to do any drills for anybody. I never really worked out for a team, and I think I just fell off the radar big-time."

Many in Keiser's shoes would have regretted their decision to leave school early, especially when the NFL's work stoppage left Keiser's football future further in limbo.

Keiser, however, never doubted his decision, instead sticking to his conviction that he was NFL-ready regardless of whether the opportunity came via the draft or an invitation to training camp.

"I felt like I was ready to play in the NFL, and ever since I started playing football in fifth grade, that was my goal," he said. "I had four good years at Stanford – three of them playing – and finished with the Orange Bowl win. I thought I was ready to take the next step.

"It was frustrating, but I spent that time working out, doing my school work and just trying to control what I could control."

Once the work stoppage lifted, more than a half-dozen NFL teams contacted Keiser, who decided that the Panthers provided him with the best opportunity.

With starting defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy slowed by injuries, Keiser made the most impactful plays at the position in the preseason according to Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, resulting in a surprise spot for Keiser on the final 53-man roster.

Nothing is actually final when it comes to NFL rosters, however, and the Panthers waived Keiser the next day but then quickly signed him to the practice squad.

"That was frustrating, but when I was re-signed to the practice squad, I knew I still had a chance," Keiser said. "So I went out there and grinded and waited for my opportunity."

That's when Keiser started making a name for himself during and after practice, earning a call-up that resulted in him being named as one of five nominees for Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week after the Lions game.

"He's not the household name that we all know, but he continues to work hard and play with great effort," McDermott said. "There may be a lot of people more talented than he is, but he wants it. That's what I love about him."

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