CHARLOTTE – After running back Fozzy Whittaker found himself on the field for a series of significant snaps during the Panthers' late-game rally that fell just short against the Atlanta Falcons, head coach Ron Rivera matter-of-factly mentioned Whittaker along with the most decorated running backs in franchise history.
"I think with Fozzy, DeAngelo (Williams) and Jonathan Stewart we have a nice trifecta of running backs," Rivera said. "It's a good combination of guys. They all bring something different to the table."
There's no way Whittaker could have imagined an NFL coach uttering those words four short months ago, when training camps around the league opened with 90-man rosters that didn't have an opening for him.
"I was working out in Austin, just staying ready for an opportunity," Whittaker said. "Thankfully I was able to get one here in Carolina at the start of training camp."
When the Panthers signed Whittaker on July 27, many viewed him as a "camp body." But that certainly wasn't Whittaker's plan, as he showed so well when he rushed for 71 yards and a touchdown in the Panthers' second preseason game.
Whittaker asked to address the team in the preseason, telling his teammates that they could always count on him to give every last ounce of what he had to offer.
"That's who I am, day in and day out," Whittaker said. "Every single day, I'm going to be the same person, and I put in the work to be that same person so that when game day comes, they can trust me to be the same person I was at practice.
"Hard work pays off. My mother instilled that in me at an early age."
Whittaker's mettle was tested early in his pro career. A standout career at the University of Texas was cut short by a knee injury late in his senior season that resulted in him going undrafted in 2012 and unsigned after the draft.
Off the radar during most of his rehab, Whittaker healed enough to try out for an NFL club that December. The Arizona Cardinals gave him a look, eventually signing him to their practice squad for the final two games of the season.
Whittaker spent the first month of the 2013 season with the San Diego Chargers but played little before being waived. The Cleveland Browns claimed him, and Whittaker quickly proved valuable as a kickoff returner and change-of-pace back. But the Browns cut him in May, and he was unemployed until the Panthers gave him a chance that he turned into a roster spot.
"Whenever I have an opportunity on the football field," Whittaker said, "I'm going to take advantage of it."
Opportunities could be hard to come by when the Panthers return to action Nov. 30 at the Minnesota Vikings. Williams and Stewart are healthy, and fullback Mike Tolbert is expected to play after missing the last eight games with a knee injury.
But Whittaker, who returned two kickoffs for touchdowns while playing in just nine games as a senior at Texas, brought a kickoff back 46 yards against the Falcons, displaying another skill that could help the team going forward.
"Whatever it is that I need to do to help the team win is what I'm going to do," Whittaker said. "And whenever my name is called to go into the game, I'm going to give it 100 percent."