CHARLOTTE – Patience on and off the field has paid off for Panthers rookie Kealoha Pilares, who has been named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week.
Pilares was inactive for Carolina's first three games, then he took over kickoff return duties but often was left to watch as kickoffs sailed too deep into the end zone for him to return them.
Sunday at Detroit, however, Pilares fielded a kickoff a yard deep in the end zone, broke free from a would-be tackler around the 15-yard line and sped to a 101-yard score down the left sideline.
The return was a team record, bettering a 100-yard return by Michael Bates on Oct. 31, 1999, at Atlanta, and a 100-yarder by Rod Smart on Oct. 5, 2003, versus New Orleans.
Pilares' return was the first one for a touchdown by a Panther since Smart's return – a span of 134 games.
"It means a lot, and not just for me," Pilares said. "It's big for the guys who block on every single play, hoping we get a chance to return it. We've been waiting a long time to break one."
With three returns for 140 yards on the day, Pilares tied the team record for highest kickoff return average in a game (46.7) by recording the exact same numbers as Smart eight years ago. He is now averaging 26.2 yards per kickoff return on 13 attempts, an average that is tied for 10th in the NFL among returners with 10 or more attempts.
Not bad for a player who returned just seven kicks over four seasons at the University of Hawaii.
"I've improved tremendously," Pilares said. "Steve Smith has really helped me out, watching film with me and helping me with setting up blocks."
Pilares said he also has been helped by a CD that Panthers head coach Ron Rivera gave him featuring highlights of Chicago Bears return man Devin Hester, who has five kickoff returns for touchdowns among his NFL-record 17 kick returns for touchdowns.
"If the special teams units improve like Kealoha has, we'll be in good shape," Rivera said. "We've made some changes the last couple of weeks, and we're starting to see the fruits of our labor."
This marks the 15th time a Panthers player has won special teams player of the week honors but just the third time it has been accomplished by a kick returner. Mark Jones captured the award in Week 13 of 2008 and Bates garnered recognition in Week 17 of 1998.