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Jermaine Carter Jr., a hit at the end of Panthers season

The third-year linebacker started a career-high seven games
Credit: AP
Denver Broncos running back Melvin Gordon III (25) tries to avoid Carolina Panthers linebacker Jermaine Carter (56) during an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Brian Westerholt)

Forget the flag. It’s still his favorite play of the season.

Carolina Panthers linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. charged after Melvin Gordon, the smack of his hit on the Denver Broncos running back echoing through a largely empty Bank of America Stadium.

A huge stop with the Broncos threatening to score.

But in a moment that was fairly fitting of the Panthers 2020 season, the big play was wiped away with a big mistake in a key moment.

“Unfortunately, I got a taunting penalty,” said Carter.

Carter stood over Gordon and flexed, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and giving Denver a first down. The Broncos scored to take a 13-7 lead, and ultimately won the game 32-27.

JERMAINE CARTER JR. WAS THE SUBJECT OF THE LATEST WCNC CHARLOTTE OFF THE CLOCK PODCAST

It certainly did not decide the game, but it was a costly penalty.

“Unfortunately, I let the game get ahead of me,” he said. “But that was my favorite play.”

You can’t blame Carter for highlighting that hit. It was years in the making for the team’s 2018 fifth-round pick.

Carter’s third season was his best. After sitting behind veteran Tahir Whitehead for most of the first half of the season, Carter made the most of his opportunities in November and December.

He started seven games, racked up 46 combined tackles and recovered a fumble, all career highs.

And he may have showed the Carolina coaching staff they can rely on him next year, and perhaps proved linebacker isn’t as big a position of need as many thought.

“I was just hungry for the opportunity,” Carter said. “There would be days early in the season where we would play, and get back home, and I would start watching film on the next team. So, whenever I got on the field, I wanted to show that I could be out there.”

During his exit interview after the Panthers finished the season 5-11, first-year head coach Matt Rhule was asked if any player had surprised him.

No surprise he mentioned Carter first.

“I believe in him,” said Rhule. “I think he’s really come a long way and has done some great things.”

But Rhule also indicated his relationship with Carter did not get off to a solid start.

“I think our relationship wasn’t great early on,” said Rhule, who indiciated the relationship between the two vastly improved as the season went along.

Here’s what Carter offered WCNC Charlotte as a response to Rhule’s comment.

“Whatever happened in the past, happened in the past,” said Carter. “Like (Rhule) said, we finished the season on a good note, and that’s all that matters.”

Carter certainly sports a chip on his shoulder.

It comes from waiting his turn to see the field in the pros and in college.

It comes from being lightly recruited by Power 5 schools coming out of high school in the Washington D.C., area.

It starts earlier than that.

The scrappy Carter was oft overlooked for high school all-conference teams, and in his first-ever youth football game, got kicked out for fighting.

“All those things helped me along the way,” Carter said. “They just added fuel to the fire.

So did the nickname given to him as a child: Pee Wee.

One of five boys, Carter received the nickname from an older brother. Any younger sibling will tell you, that sort of moniker can work against you.

“When I was younger, I hated it, because when you think of Pee Wee you think of a small person,” Carter said. “Then it started to grow on me. I started to embrace it. It’s who I was.”

Carter, who stands 6-feet, isn’t the biggest linebacker, but led Maryland in tackles for three-straight seasons before joining the Panthers.

His rookie season in Carolina, there wasn’t much room for him on the field with names like Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson ahead of him, but there was plenty of space in the film room.

Especially with No. 59.

“In college I always studied film of Luke,” said Carter. “Once I got drafted he was the first person that texted me.”

Kuechly, now retired but working for the Panthers, still reviews film with Carter.

“He just helped me take it to a whole new level,” said Carter.

It helped on that hit on Gordon.

Forgetting the flag, perhaps that play showed that Carter is ready to take the next step in 2021.

“I’ve just always been overlooked,” said Carter. “This is no feel-good story. It’s the truth. I’m just preparing like I want to be the starter.”