Michael Carter zeroed in on a receiver Saturday and stopped him with a big hit, then kept driving forward until they fell to the ground together. Going forward -- that's not always the direction Carter's career has been headed.
"It's been a rough trip being here. I know there's been a lot of up and downs, but I just love wearing the 'M' on my helmet," Carter, a senior cornerback, said after the Gophers' two-hour workout in TCF Bank Stadium. "Coach [Jerry] Kill allowed me to be back on this team, and I'm just trying to be a new, better Mike Carter."
That's because the old Mike Carter was mostly promise, but little production, a career headed in reverse practically since the day he arrived from Florida in 2009.
He was one of the most heralded recruits ever to sign with the Gophers, a nationally known talent from Pompano Beach who could dominate a game from the secondary. But after playing 12 games and making a handful of big plays as a freshman, he got on the field only seven times as a sophomore and five times last year.
Injuries played a role in that, but attitude and effort were a bigger problem, one that extended to the classroom as well as the practice field. "One thing Coach Kill has always said, 'If you want to play on game day, you're going to do the right things during the week,' " defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. "He was late to classes, lots of things like that. There are consequences. The [fewer] distractions you have, the better you're going to play."
Kill confronted Carter last winter about his subpar grades and lack of commitment to the team.
"It got to the point Coach Kill told me some things I need to change, to man up, get focused," Carter said. He went home and considered walking away from the team. He called his cousin Tyrone Carter, an All-America safety for the Gophers in 1998 and 1999, and they talked for six hours about his future.
"I told him, 'I want to be a Gopher.' I thought about transferring, but that's one thing about me -- I don't quit," Carter said. "This year, I'm more engaged in school, more engaged in the film room. I'm working with tutors. I'm setting all the other stuff aside. People really don't see me on weekends anymore; I use it as study time instead of going out. I'm focused on what I need to do."
He likes the change as much as Kill and his coaches, too. "I'm loose. I feel fresh. I feel like the newcomer," Carter said. "I feel brand new."
But he's playing like a savvy veteran. Carter is making noteworthy plays in every spring practice, and Claeys calls him one of the most impressive players of the spring.
"This semester has been tremendous. From the classroom, to being [effective] on the football field, he's working his tail end off, and now he's put himself in position to get to play," Claeys said. "We need Mike, we really do. So to his credit, he's made the changes he's had to make. And it's a lot of fun to watch."