In the 2008 NFL Draft the Panthers selected three offensive linemen among their nine picks. The plan was for Jeff Otah, a first-round pick, to start immediately at tackle. Seventh-round selections Geoff Schwartz and Mackenzy Bernadeau were viewed as projects who could add to the Panthers' depth eventually.
Less than two full seasons later Bernadeau and Schwartz are preparing to start for Carolina, and Otah is out. Otah is the second Panthers tackle to succumb to a season-ending injury this year, after injuring his knee in last Sunday's loss at New England. Jordan Gross broke his ankle Nov. 15 against Atlanta. Travelle Wharton slid over from guard to replace Gross, with Bernadeau replacing Wharton.
Now it is Schwartz's turn to fill in. The 6-foot-6, 331-pound 23-year-old is expected to make his first career start Sunday night against visiting Minnesota. It's a heck of a way to launch an NFL career. He will line up against the NFL's No. 4-ranked run defense (and 6th overall), anchored by standouts in defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, and end Jared Allen.
Schwartz spoke about the challenges he faces Sunday, and about relishing the chance to start:
Schwartz, a three-year starter at the University of Oregon, may feel familiar in the Panthers huddle. Tailback Jonathan Stewart and tight end Dante Rosario both played with Schwartz at Oregon. Schwartz suffered a back injury as a junior, which scouts say made his draft stock slip last year. He was complimented for his size and strength, but draft experts questioned his quickness and athleticism -- although he was a good enough athlete to play football, basketball and baseball in high school.
Schwartz spent all of last season on the practice squad, learning to play a pro style offense after lining up in the spread at Oregon. He has been active this season.
Schwartz is excited about and prepared for Sunday's game, he says. "I'm as ready as I can be. It's a good opportunity...Any opportunity you get in this league, you've got to relish."
Schwartz is a "much different" player than he was when he came out of Oregon. He called last season a transition season, "more like a redshirt year." He has since learned to play the Panthers' system and added strength, in part by lifting weights with Gross and center Ryan Kalil nearly every day in the offseason. "I used (last year) to get ready," he said. By the time he was participating in OTA's during the offseason, he felt comfortable enough to play.
The criticism from draft experts and scouts last year does not motivate Schwartz, he says. Instead, "I want to prove to myself more than anybody else" that he can play in the NFL.
Nor is Schwartz playing with his career in mind, although the way he plays over the next three games could determine where he ends up next season. "I'm not really looking at it right now," he says. "I just want to play and show what I can do."
So how badly does he want to play? Well, badly enough the the specter of playing in prime time, against the 11-2 Vikings, does not up the ante. "It doesn't matter when we actually play -- Thursday, Saturday, Sunday," he said. "I'm just hungry for the opportunity. It just happens to be Sunday night." ...
Schwart's teammates also spoke of the changes on the offensive line, and of the urgency that they hope Bernadeau and Schwartz play with. "Any time you have a chance to start in this league, you have a chance to put yourself on film," tight end Jeff King says. "That's your resume."
"It's going to be exciting to see what they can do," guard Kendrick Vincent said. Vincent, in his 9th season, gave this advice to the two green linemen: "Just go out there and have fun." ...
Other teammates had fun with Schwartz. As he faced the media horde in the Panthers' locker room after practice Wednesday afternoon, teammates walked by and dropped one liners. A sample:
--"The next Anthony Munoz." ...
Two final notes on Schwartz: He once carried the ball in college, when Oregon Quarterback Dennis Dixon ran a play the wrong way and flipped the ball to Schwartz. Dixon thought Schwartz was a back. He caught the pitch and ran for three yards. See the play here.
Schwart'z father once kept a Web site about his son's athletics exploits. It has not been updated since 2005, but it is still active.