The next "next man up" at tackle

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As a training camp practice wrapped up last week and the Panthers huddled up, head coach Ron Rivera issued a challenge of sorts to a portion of the 90-man roster.

"You guys on second and third team," Rivera said. "We need you."

Blaine Clausell's ears perked up. He's a backup, but he's recently moved up.

"As a guy who has been on p-squad, I understand what he's talking about," said Clausell, an offensive tackle who has spent the majority of his three NFL seasons on practice squads. "I feel like he's talking about me because you do need depth in this league. It's a tough sport, and you've got to have depth.

"Some guys that come in and think they might not get a chance to play – well, they will."

Clausell's chances improved earlier in training camp, although not under the best of circumstances. All-Pro right tackle Daryl Williams is out indefinitely with a knee injury, moving second-year pro Taylor Moton into his starting spot and leaving Clausell as the top tackle reserve.

"It's a league where when someone goes down, no matter how close you are with them or how bad you feel for them, you've got to be able to take advantage of the opportunity," Clausell said. "I would say yes, it's definitely an opportunity."

While few fans may have given Clausell a second thought – he's never played in a regular season game – the Panthers thought enough of him to elevate him from the practice squad to the 53-man roster prior to last year's playoff game. He was inactive for the loss to the Saints, but Carolina's coaches and his teammates believe he's on the cusp.

"He's learning. He's getting better every day," left tackle Matt Kalil said. "I think he's a guy that can compete for some type of spot on the active roster. Every time I see him, he gets better and better.

"He's got quick feet, and he's a big guy with long arms – everything you ask for in a tackle prospect. He's been doing well, and he keeps improving."

Clausell certainly looks the part. At 6-foot-6, 330 pounds, only Kalil and defensive end Julius Peppers are taller (6-7), and only Williams and defensive tackle Vernon Butler match him on the scales.

"It helps," Clausell said, "but even a small dog with a big heart can fight. It's all about the fight that's in you, not so much the size."

Clausell said he has plenty of fight in him.

"My journey has turned me into a fighter," he said. "I'm real competitive and tough on myself. If I get beat, the next play I'm doing everything I can to push you in the ground. My focus is on never getting beat; I bring that attitude to my play.

"I didn't finish my career in college the way I wanted to, so I kind of knew I was going to be undrafted. But everybody has their own stories, and I feel like guys that come in like that, it makes you fight that much harder because it's a bigger uphill battle and you're more gracious and thankful when you get to that spot."

Clausell wasn't drafted after starting three years for some pretty good Mississippi State teams, including one his senior year in 2014 that at one point was ranked No. 1 in the nation. His rookie season began and ended on the Ravens' practice squad, with a stint on the Patriots' p-squad in between.

His in-season home has been the Panthers' practice squad since late in the 2016 season, when Carolina picked him up after Washington waived him. Before that happened, he spent three games on the Redskins' 53-man roster. He was inactive for all three, though one was a Thanksgiving showdown against the Cowboys in which Clausell got to catch up before the game with his college quarterback – Dak Prescott.

This season, the Panthers open by hosting Prescott and the Cowboys.

"It felt good to walk up and shake his hand," Clausell said. "I let him know, 'I'm proud of you. I see how hard you've worked. Hopefully I'll be out on the field the next time you see me, and maybe we can shake hands, both of us with pads on.'

"That would be nice."

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