Panthers scrambling to replace run-stuffing DT Kemoeatu

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Maake Kemoeatu sat in the shade off to the side of the Carolina Panthers' practice field Tuesday, his right leg extended and wrapped in an air cast. A pair of crutches rested on a folding chair next to him.

One day after completely tearing his Achilles' tendon, the Panthers' largest player and top run-stuffer could only watch a group of inexperienced defensive tackles try to replace him.

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"Bummed out," Kemoeatu said, his face partially hidden under a floppy hat. "I wasn't coming into camp expecting to get hurt on the first day. But that's all a part of football. The Carolina Panthers will move on. We're going to do good."

Kemoeatu is scheduled for surgery Wednesday, but he remains hopeful that "maybe I'll make it back for the last month of the season." Kemoeatu hasn't been placed on injured reserve, and coach John Fox said the Panthers will consider holding a roster spot for him.

For now, Fox and new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks are more concerned with finding an immediate replacement at a position that the salary cap-strapped Panthers had almost no depth entering camp.

Nick Hayden, who played in two games as a rookie last season, worked with the first team Tuesday. Behind him are undrafted rookies Marlon Favorite and Lonnie Harvey. Then there's Lorenzo Williams, who had a short stint on Carolina's practice squad last season.

"It's going to be tough, but people have got to step up, like myself, and other players on the team have to step up," Hayden said. "We've just got to do the best job we can do right now."

The Panthers likely will have to find a veteran tackle somewhere, either by signing a player not in the NFL or through a trade. They also could perhaps move Corvey Irvin, designated now as Damione Lewis' backup at the other defensive tackle spot.

"They haven't talked to me at all about it," Irvin said. "I'm still learning my craft over there. Nobody has talked to me about playing nose."

The 6-foot-5, 345-pound Kemoeatu had lined up over the center the past two seasons for the Panthers after they signed him away from the Baltimore Ravens. He clogged the middle and was the key component of Carolina's run defense.

Kemoeatu's absence in the Panthers' key late-season game against the New York Giants was evident when Carolina allowed 301 rushing yards in an overtime loss. That was the first NFL game for Hayden, a sixth-round draft pick last year.

"I'm coming out this year head high, knowing my position on the field, knowing my technique better, knowing the defense a little better even though it's newer," Hayden said. "Just going by that, the confidence level is a lot better."

Meeks, who had success with the Indianapolis Colts using smaller, quicker players on the defensive line, might have to use that style without the mammoth Kemoeatu.

"You want to base things on the skill set of the players you have," Meeks said. "You don't want to force players to do something they can't do. We'll look at the situation and sit down and talk about and see what happens. But first we want to find out what is going on with the big fella."

Kemoeatu was clearly frustrated with his fate. Eager to turn around Carolina's dismal defensive performance at the end of last season, he didn't make it to the first team drill on the opening practice of training camp Monday.

"I felt it tightening up," Kemoeatu said. "In the pursuit drill, we've got to run to the line. I had about five yards left to go, so I thought I would push through it. I took another two steps, and it just popped off."

It wasn't until later when team trainers told Kemoeatu "you may have lost your Achilles" that he realized his season might be over.

"I'm holding onto everything I can on that little hope that I can still make it back on the field and play with the boys," Kemoeatu said. "We'll see."

But the Panthers might not have the luxury of holding a spot on the 53-man roster for Kemoeatu because they have so little depth and such a big body to replace.

"It's a huge loss, a run-plugger like Kemo, eight-year vet," safety Chris Harris said. "To lose him the first day of practice is a little devastating. One of the young guys they brought in on the defensive line is going to have to step up. We're going to need him to play."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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