CHARLOTTE - Austin Duke was driving back to UNC Charlotte, 11 miles away from Bank of America Stadium, when he received a rather unexpected call.
“I was driving to work out up at Charlotte. My agent called me and said, ‘I got some good news for you. The Panthers want to put you on the practice squad. Get ready.’”
He already was ready.
The undrafted wide receiver spent the entire preseason with the Panthers vying for a spot on the 53-man roster but was let go on the NFL’s final cut day. However, an injury to Keyarris Garrett opened a spot on Carolina’s practice squad that head coach Ron Rivera thought Duke could fill.
“He’s a young guy that was very close to making it to begin with,” Rivera said. “We noticed when we had to make a move and we had the opportunity to bring him back, we did.”
Since being let go on Sept. 2, Duke has continued to work out and progress both physically and mentally. The time off has allowed him to reflect on his experience in the offseason, everything he did right and wrong. This opportunity presents Duke with a second chance to improve upon his weaknesses and flaws that hampered him in his first attempt to make the Panthers roster.
“I think the biggest thing wasn’t a physical, but a mental battle,” Duke said. “Sitting back and reflecting, how can I have better body language?
“I knew I didn’t do well enough to make the 53-man during the preseason and training camp. I knew I had an opportunity to continue growing as an athlete and a player. I showed I was capable, but there were some things I lacked. When you are self-aware, you kind of know and understand those things. For me, it was all about accepting and growing. That’s what I look forward to doing on the practice squad.”
Duke isn’t the first rookie and certainly won’t be the last to experience the roller coaster ride of the NFL roster formation process. Two seasons ago, former South Carolina wideout Damiere Byrd was cut at the end of the preseason, only to be re-signed to the practice squad two weeks later. Much like Duke, he’s an undersized, speedy receiver that possessed an alike skillset.
This season, the Panthers named him to the 53-man.
“A great example of a young man going through (the process) two years ago was Byrd,” Rivera said. “We had to let him go, and he came back a week later. A bunch of veteran guys really liked who he was, put their arm around him told him if you keep working hard and keep doing what you’re doing, it’ll stick.”