It took only one play in a preseason game to show how much work was ahead.
"I tried to take on Ray Lewis, and he didn't even push me. He just moved me out of the way," Goodson said. "I was like, 'All right, I've got to get bigger.'"
Not bad for a guy who earlier this month was Carolina's fourth-string running back.
It wasn't until Sutton also was hurt in that game that the Panthers were forced to give Goodson the start a week later against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The fourth-round draft pick from Texas A&M rushed for a Carolina season-high 100 yards on 23 carries, showing explosiveness in the backfield that was missing all season in the team's 24th-ranked rushing game.
Goodson, 23, followed that up with a career-best performance in last Sunday's 37-13 loss to the Ravens that included a 45-yard run, Carolina's longest of the season.
"It would be hard to imagine him having these type of back-to-back games a year ago," Fox said. "Mike worked very hard this offseason both to increase his size and strength, and obviously a better understanding of our run game as well as our pass protections has helped."
Goodson left college after a disappointing junior season in which he rushed for just 406 yards while clashing with new Aggies coach Mike Sherman. His draft stock was falling, but with his father, Mike Sr., in prison on a mortgage fraud conviction, Goodson turned pro to help his family's finances.
Even though the Panthers already had Williams and Stewart, they used an extra fourth-round pick on Goodson based on his potential. But he came to camp last year weighing 187 pounds and overwhelmed by the responsibilities that running backs have in the NFL.
"I think coming from college you think, 'I'm a running back. I'm a running back.' That's your mentality and you think, 'Run the ball. Run the ball,'" Goodson said. "But here you've got to know the passing aspect just as well as you run the ball. Knowing the whole offense. Know what the receiver does, what the quarterback does, how it works together."
After being tossed aside by Lewis in the preseason, the Panthers were wary of using Goodson too much in the backfield. He was a part-time kickoff returner, but he spent half the season on the game-day inactive list.
Goodson was determined to play a bigger role in 2010 and went on a rigorous offseason workout program that produced about 25 extra pounds of muscle and bulk. He also spent long hours in the film room to better learn pass-rush schemes.
Still, with Williams and Stewart each coming off 1,100-yard seasons, there figured to be little room for the 6-foot Goodson. He was mostly just returning kickoffs until injuries hit.
"Because we had such a long list of featured backs, the guy never really got much of an opportunity to show what kind of runner he was," Fox said. "He hasn't let anybody define him. He's taken these opportunities and made the most of them. We're learning just like you are as far as what he can do, and I think he is, too."
Goodson's play leaves Carolina (1-9) with big short-term and long-term decisions as it rebuilds.
The first is that Stewart, who has been held to 208 yards on 69 carries, practiced again Thursday and is expected to play Sunday at Cleveland after missing two games. Fox hasn't said who will start.
And Williams, who was held to 361 yards on 87 carries before being lost for the season to a foot injury, is an impending free agent.
A few more big games by Goodson to close the season could permanently change Carolina's backfield.
"Hopefully," Goodson said, "I'm surprising some people."
Notes: QB Jimmy Clausen passed another cognitive test and practiced for a second consecutive day Thursday following a concussion. He'll start Sunday, barring a setback. ... Backup QBs Brian St. Pierre (shoulder) and Tony Pike (arm) were limited. ... LG Travelle Wharton (toe), RB Tyrell Sutton (ankle), CB Captain Munnerlyn (shoulder), S Jordan Pugh (hamstring) and S Marcus Hudson (ankle) remained sidelined. ... CB Chris Gamble practiced Thursday after being absent a day earlier for personal reasons.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press