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A Quick Start for Colbert

Panthers turn to rookie from USC after their star receiver Smith goes out indefinitely because of a broken leg.

September 19, 2004|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

Some of Keary Colbert's more humbling responsibilities as a first-year NFL receiver include going on food runs for his Carolina Panther teammates, delivering bottles of sports drinks to thirsty souls in the locker room, even toting muddy shoes and sweaty laundry. He doesn't complain.

"I guess it's something everybody's got to do if you're a rookie in this league," Colbert said.

But now that star receiver Steve Smith is out indefinitely because of a broken leg, Colbert could go from gofer to go-to guy for the Panthers. He will start today when the defending NFC champions play at Kansas City, each team looking to avoid an 0-2 start.

"I'm sad to see what happened to Steve," said Colbert, a second-round selection from USC. "But it's an opportunity, and I have to do my best to take advantage of it."

Colbert impressed coaches and teammates at training camp, not only with his sticky hands but his surprising ability to get deep, a skill that wasn't widely appreciated by scouts who saw him at USC. Colbert was billed more as a possession receiver than a burner, reliable when it came to catching shorter stuff but without the speed to stretch a defense.

"I don't live off labels," he said. "I live off my job and being me."

Said Richard Williamson, Carolina's receivers coach: "You don't always have to have great speed to get deep. If you run good routes and do the things you're supposed to do, you have a chance to do that."

That was evident this summer, when Colbert made the most of his limited time in exhibition games. He caught eight passes and averaged 34.6 yards a catch. He played four seasons for the Trojans and was the school's all-time leading receiver with 207 catches. He was inactive for the opener against Green Bay.

Smith, whose lower left leg snapped in the fourth quarter of that loss, led Carolina last season with career highs in receptions, 88; yards receiving, 1,110; and touchdowns, seven. He averaged 28.1 yards on kickoff returns.

Coach John Fox said rookie Chris Gamble would replace Smith as a kick returner, and that he had faith in Colbert's ability to step in at receiver. Asked whether he considered Colbert a playmaker, Fox said, "Yeah. If you watched in the preseason, you saw that. He made some big plays. He's got a good idea of what we're doing in the offense, and we feel very good about Keary Colbert."

There's no telling when Smith will be back. He broke his fibula, the smaller of two bones in the lower leg, an injury that typically takes at least eight weeks to heal. So Colbert has at least half a season to settle into his role -- and he'll have a new coach giving him tips on the sideline.

"Obviously, Steve's like a big brother to me on the field," he said. "Now he's going to be able to help me from the outside looking in. You always get a different view that way."

Colbert will be shouldering some of the offensive load in the coming weeks, but probably not as much as Smith did. The Panthers have experienced receivers in Muhsin Muhammad and Ricky Proehl who can help him.

So far, Colbert has been an honor student, collecting pointers and improving by the day.

"He's like a sponge," Muhammad said. "He's been coming in and trying to soak up as much information as possible. He's willing to learn and he's got a great feel for the game."

Colbert also never forgets he's a rookie. He knows he's going to have to pick up the tab for a receivers' dinner this season, and he has heard that can be pricey.

"You're talking about thousands of dollars," he said. "I know for a fact that it's $5,000, $8,000. I know some guys on other teams that picked up some $12,000 tabs and things like that. Guys will order bottles of wine just to take home, not to drink there."

He insists he isn't wringing his hands, though.

"It's going to happen, regardless, so there ain't nothing to be nervous about," he said. "You just might as well go out and enjoy the night, because at the end of the day you're going to pay the tab anyway."

Likewise, he doesn't mind making fast-food runs and lavishing his teammates with pizza and chicken.

The tough part: Can he replace their bread and butter?

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