We're a few days into fall practice, and some trends are beginning to emerge regarding which players may be prepared to make bigger contributions to the team than expected. Who are these players who are flying under the radar but may be primed for big things?
--Damiere Byrd. Not exactly a player who is coming out of nowhere, as Byrd has contributed his share of big plays at Carolina, but Byrd has been a bit of a one-trick pony who uses his speed to make deep catches on fly and post routes but doesn't do much else. Drops have been a problem for him too, with the most costly one coming at the end of the first half against LSU on a play that could have changed the outcome of that game. Byrd seems to be showing that he has a better command of the offense, though, as well as better hands, the latter perhaps as a product of recent vision surgery. The receivers getting the attention right now are Bruce Ellington, Nick Jones, Shaq Roland, and, to a lesser extent, Shamier Jeffery, but Byrd may be ready to take on a big role in the offense, too. Still, Byrd is a player who has done well in practice before only to struggle in game situations, so it's important for him to prove he can do it on game day.
--Shon Carson. After earning earning the second tailback spot as Marcus Lattimore's backup in preseason 2011, Carson has suffered an unfortunate series of injuries that have kept him from showing what he can do on Saturdays. Coming into 2013, the talk at tailback is Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds. However, Carson is now as fresh physically as he's been since he arrived in Columbia, and the buzz out of fall camp is that he's giving the coaching staff a viable option as a change-of-pace-back, if not more. At 5'8 / 219 and with impressive speed and elusiveness, Carson has some enviable traits for a tailback. He runs low to the ground, which makes him one of those backs who is hard to see from the defensive side of the line, allowing him to surprise defenders as he bursts through the hole. His stature and build also make him tough to bring down. And then, of course, he has the breakaway speed to be a home-run threat. I'm interested to see what he can do if he makes it onto the field. He offers a unique skill set that you'd have to imagine the coaches would like to find a way to use.
--Ahmad Christian. Christian had a promising freshman season as a backup corner in our base defense and as a dime back. Now that Akeem Auguste is gone, Christian will get more playing time in the base defense, and he'll continue to contribute on passing downs. Returns in fall practice so far suggest he's ready for this bigger role. Christian doesn't have to be great just yet, but if he can be serviceable spelling Jimmy Legree and Victor Hampton, he'll make an important contribution to the team.
--Cedrick Cooper. Cooper suffered an injury this week that will keep him out for a couple of days, but he should be good to go soon. That's fortunate, as he appears to be ready for a big year at WILL linebacker. Cooper has earned the praise of his coaches for his thorough understanding of the defense, making him a potential Shaq Wilson-like "quarterback of the defense." It also appears that he's recovered nicely from last winter's knee injury. His success could go a long way towards assuaging the concerns over the linebacker position, widely considered Carolina's Achilles heel.
--Jimmy Legree. Like Byrd, Legree has played a good bit over the course of his career, so it might be a misnomer to project him as a surprise player. However, the senior corner has struggled with consistency. Early returns this fall, though, suggest that he's successfully developed a senior's understanding of the defense and is doing everything the coaches want him to. He could be primed to perform as one of the league's better corners this season starting opposite of likely star Victor Hampton.
Who am I missing here? I'm thinking of players who are flying under the radar a bit, as opposed to players like Chaz Sutton or Jerrell Adams who are widely expected to play a much bigger role this season.