CHARLOTTE – Panthers right tackle Garry Williams had to battle some nerves in the early moments of his first NFL start Sunday versus the San Francisco 49ers.
The rest of the day, however, the defensive linemen trying to break free from Williams were the ones with a battle on their hands.
"I was a little nervous, but I was like, 'I'm just going to give it all I've got,'" said Williams, whose strong debut helped the Panthers earn their first victory of the season. "Our coach told us from the jump that this was going to be a fight, so I put my big-boy pads on to help the team get a win."
With the offense struggling and right tackle Jeff Otah still yet to make his season debut following knee surgery, the coaching staff decided to shake things up along the offensive line for Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers.
Geoff Schwartz, who had been occupying Otah's spot, moved over to right guard in place of Mackenzy Bernadeau, and Williams stepped in at right tackle.
The offense responded with its most productive day of the season. The Panthers gained 379 yards, and quarterback Matt Moore threw 41 times but was sacked just once.
"The offensive line did an unbelievable job, and I think Garry Williams did a heck of a job," Moore said. "Those guys were manly up there."
Williams got the job done by taking much the same approach he's taken since his first day as a pro.
"My plan was to be aggressive, to just come off the rock and just hit 'em," Williams said. "And no matter what happened, if I messed up one play, just go to the next play and keep fighting."
Williams has been a fighter from the beginning. He wasn't selected in the 2009 NFL Draft following a solid career at the University of Kentucky, but the Panthers signed him soon after, and he went on to become the only undrafted rookie to play for Carolina in 2009.
Williams was on the 53-man roster all of last season and saw action in seven games, mostly on special teams. It had been much the same this season, until he got his big break.
"I always look at myself as an underdog. I kind of like that, trying to prove to everybody that I can do it," Williams said. "I just kept working hard, and then when they gave me the opportunity, I seized the moment."
Head coach John Fox indicated Monday he'd go with the same line to start Sunday's game at the St. Louis Rams, but Williams refuses to rest on his laurels.
"I always picture in my mind that I'm going to get cut. That makes me work harder," Williams said. "I approach it like I haven't made the team yet, and that keeps me striving. That's what I still do every day."
His efforts haven't gone unnoticed by his fellow linemen, especially in training camp when Williams missed more than a week with a shoulder injury but bounced back to secure a roster spot.
"He worked hard the whole offseason, and he came back from an injury during training camp and fought through it and worked his tail off," left guard Travelle Wharton said. "You can tell a guy, 'You're an injury away from an opportunity.' Some guys take heed to it, but some approach it like, 'I'll never play.'
"With Gary, when it was time to play, he stepped up."