CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- From emergency starting center last year to starting right guard late this year, Geoff Hangartner has become a valuable utility man on the Carolina offensive line.
Only the 6-foot-5, 301-pound Hangartner can't walk through the locker room these days without catching grief about his kickoff returns.
"I think we're averaging pretty good field position," Hangartner said Wednesday of his three returns this season. "My return average - you guys should write about this in the paper - it went up 1 yard last week, from 13 to 14 yards."
The same week Hangartner made his second straight start at right guard ahead of Jeremy Bridges, a botched, short kickoff somehow bounced his way again. Hangartner picked it up, wrapped both mammoth hands around it, and rumbled straight ahead 16 yards to the Panthers 39.
The good starting field position led to John Kasay's go-ahead field goal in the Panthers' surprising 13-10 win.
"I don't know why teams don't start kicking away from him every time," center Justin Hartwig said, dripping with sarcasm. "He's the obvious lethal weapon back there."
Returns aside, the 2005 fifth-round pick with the strikingly long, reddish beard has been a key contributor.
Last year, Hangartner started the final 15 games at center when Hartwig suffered a groin injury. Hartwig returned this year, and Hangartner started the season playing only on special teams, while learning nearly every position on the line.
In Week 6, Hangartner replaced an ailing Mike Wahle at left guard in the fourth quarter, while also returning his first kickoff 16 yards.
Hangartner got his first start against Jacksonville on Dec. 9. While the move came on the same day Bridges was inactive with an abscessed tooth, Hangartner acknowledged Wednesday he was going to replace Bridges before his tooth problem.
Hangartner injured his shoulder against the Seahawks, but was back at practice Wednesday and is expected to start Saturday against Dallas.
"Any time you can get on the field in this league it's a good thing," Hangartner said. "Every time you get out there you have an opportunity to show what you can do and get some tape. That's your resume in the NFL, the tape."
"I think coaches love to have guys around like that because they're reliable, dependable and when they get in the game you can count on them," quarterback Vinny Testaverde said. "The more guys you have like that, the better your team's going to be."
But back to the kickoff returns. A lineman will occasionally be forced to pick up a low, short kick. It's pretty unusual to happen three times to the same guy.
Yet Hangartner had a 10-yard return against Arizona, and a pair of 16-yard returns against Indianapolis and Seattle.
"It's like hitting a bad golf shot. The kicker hits it bad," Hangartner said. "It usually knuckles and then bounces in front of me. So there's really not any other option but to pick it up. There's nowhere to let it go to because the returner is too far behind me."
Hangartner has learned to always keep both hands on the ball - and run straight ahead.
"I know that I'm not going to take it to the house," Hangartner said with a grin. "I don't think that any special teams coach in the league is losing sleep at night worrying about me returning kicks. So I try to run where they're not."
Hangartner is listed as a center in Carolina's media guide. They may have to add guard - and even kick returner - next season.
"Hey, the more you can do, the harder it is for them to get rid of you," he said.
Notes:Panthers DE Julius Peppers missed his second straight practice Wednesday with a sprained right knee. Mike Rucker (illness) and WR Keary Colbert (knee) also sat out. ... S Chris Harris (hip) was limited in the workout, while WR Steve Smith (illness) and Hartwig (ankle) were back at practice after sitting out Tuesday.