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Tryouts battle to overcome odds


CHARLOTTE - Less than three years ago at Temple's end-of-season football banquet, now-Panthers defensive tackle Andre Neblett was honored as the Owls' defensive MVP.

Safety Dominique Harris, one of 32 tryout players at Panthers rookie camp this weekend, was named overall team MVP that same evening.

'"We were in the same graduating class, and we spent a lot of time together - on and off the field,'" Harris said. '"Andre's a good guy and a great player. I would love to be here with him.'"

For every Neblett, undrafted in 2010 but now two years into a solid stint with the Panthers, there are probably 10 prospects like Harris, who has covered one kickoff in his pro career and is trying to find an NFL home in his eighth or ninth city this weekend.

But in a new age for the NFL, with rosters recently expanding from 80 players to 90 and with teams needing lots of bodies for their rookie camps, the chances have improved for players like Harris to stick around for OTAs.

After that, who knows what could happen?

'"We could find that diamond in the rough; we could find a guy that belongs,'" Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. '"I think at a couple of different positions there may be a guy or two that we feel could help us.'"

After the weekend work on the practice field concludes, Panthers brass will study film from the sessions and could opt to sign some of the tryout players.

The number surely will be limited since the Panthers entered the camp up against the roster limit, but rookies like William Maxwell, veterans like Jon Cooper and everyone in between are determined to make it a difficult decision for the front office.

'"I'm just going to do the best I can,'" said Maxwell, a Football Championship Series All-American at Georgia Southern last season who played both guard and center. '"I'm going to work as hard as I can and let everything fall where it may.

'"The draft came and went, and a couple of days went by and I didn't hear from anybody. I was kind of down, but Carolina gave me a call and brought my spirits back up. I'm just ready to work.'"

Cooper spent two-plus seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, starting one game at center and playing in 12 others. He said the teams that have shown the most interest in him – Carolina and San Francisco – appear well-stocked along the offensive line, but he's trying to show the value of versatility and experience.

'"You just have to try to figure out how to show them what you can do in the little amount of time and space you have and limited amount of things you're allowed to do,'" Cooper said. '"My thing is to try to prove that I can play center and guard and show that I can help the team win.

'"If you get to this level, they know you can play football, so in the meeting room and while watching film, you've got to display some of your knowledge for the game.'"

Anthony Barnes, a cornerback out of Norfolk State, is embracing the camp and the full offseason that will follow. Barnes was invited to Washington Redskins training camp as a rookie last season before being waived during the preseason, but he believes he and other 2011 rookies faced an especially difficult uphill battle.


'"Because of the lockout, I didn't get to go through OTAs. I was thrown straight into camp, and they had to put the veteran guys in more to get them ready,'" Barnes said. '"I feel like I didn't get a true chance, but the Panthers are giving me a true chance to show what I can do.'"

The silver lining this year for hopefuls like Barnes and former East Carolina running back Jonathan Williams is that with expanded rosters, they may get multiple chances. Williams is putting his heart and soul into Panthers camp but also recently worked out for the New York Jets.

'"They were really interested, liked what I did,'" Williams said of the Jets. '"I'm still hoping to hear from them, but I'm here right now.'"

And he and others like him are crossing their fingers that they're still here Monday.

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