Michael Carter can’t remember how many times he had to wear the dreaded “Minnesota Loafers” jersey in practice last season. He’d rather forget those uncomfortable days.
“I’m leaving the past in the past,” he said. “I’m focused on this season and helping my team become better.”
The Gophers senior cornerback is doing just that in his final chance to fulfill a career that began with so much promise and potential. Carter’s early-season play has been a bright spot and catalyst for a Gophers defense that desperately needed playmakers and leadership in the secondary. Entering Saturday’s game against Syracuse, Carter was tied for team-lead in pass breakups (5) and grabbed a timely interception in a victory against Western Michigan.
Jerry Kill described Carter’s performance last week as his “best game since he’s [been] here,” and not many around the program would have predicted that scenario last winter. Carter was operating on borrowed time, his future with the program uncertain. Once a blue-chip recruit with seemingly a bright future, Carter’s career stalled and his first season with Kill’s staff could not have gone much worse.
Carter barely saw the field and became a disciplinary problem. He was late to meetings and drew the scorn of coaches for his lackadaisical approach. The two sides appeared headed for a mutual parting of ways until Carter’s cousin, former Gophers star Tyrone, asked if he could intervene in a last-ditch attempt to salvage Michael’s career.
Tyrone made a surprise visit to the Twin Cities and read his cousin the riot act.
“I just got in his face because he’s my family,” said Tyrone, a former All-American safety and Thorpe Award winner. “He’s following a legacy that I left and I brought to my school. I don’t want to have that legacy looked down upon because I had a cousin that didn’t live by the same creed that I did.”
Tyrone’s words hit like a sledgehammer. He didn’t hold anything back. He wanted his cousin to understand the opportunity he was wasting and the disappointment he’d feel long afterward if he allowed his dream to spiral down the drain.
“I was straight with him,” Tyrone said. “I told him you have to take every day like it’s your last. You can’t throw away your future because you’re out here trying to party and fit in with guys. You’ve got to understand what you’re trying to accomplish.”
Carter accepted the criticism and vowed to change. He had a heart-to-heart talk with Kill and asked for another shot to make things right.
“I felt like everything was slipping away from me,” Carter said. “My hopes and dreams of going to the [NFL] and getting my degree. I had to have some ‘me’ time and just focus and do what I need to help myself become a better player. It was more of me changing. They can tell me a whole bunch of stories and give me examples. But it was more of, if I wanted to change.”
He did, and the results impressed those around him. Carter bought into Kill’s program and recognized his responsibilities. He arrives on time to study hall and team meetings. He practices the right way, listens to coaches and is more consistent in everything he does.
Here’s the key though: He has to maintain that approach the entire season. He can’t slip and fall into bad habits again. He can’t undo all the good he’s done the past seven months. Carter has seen positive results -- on and off the field -- so that should provide enough incentive.
“I’m doing what the team needs,” he said. “Being more of a team player instead of an individual.”
Carter was called for two pass interference penalties on one drive in the third quarter, but he responded with a critical tackle for loss on second-and-goal from the one-foot line. That forced Syracuse to pass on third down and the Gophers came up with an interception to save points.
Talent has never been the issue with him. Rated a four-star recruit from Pompano Beach, Fla., Carter was a prized recruit in former coach Tim Brewster’s 2009 recruiting class. Rivals ranked him as the 12th-best cornerback nationally. The fact he shares bloodlines with a former Gophers great only added to his hype.
But his path took a detour after appearing in 12 games as a freshman. He played in only 13 games the past two seasons combined and had little impact. He became an afterthought at best, a bust at worst.
“We know what he can do,” Tyrone said. “It’s just, ‘Shut your mouth and let your actions take over.’ He’s got a swagger about him, which is good. But [I told him], ‘You’re going into your fourth year and haven’t completed a whole season yet? You haven’t made all-Big Ten or been a captain on your team. So what are you saying? You’re not showing your good leadership. Who’s going to follow you?’”
His cousin can answer those questions positively now. He was a game captain Saturday night.