The secret to Michael Carter's season of redemption is in his eyes, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys says. And that makes a lot of sense.
Because Carter says he sees everything a lot more clearly now.
"I know I'm not that young kid anymore. I'm not trying to get away from all that. But I know now how important it is to do what I'm capable of, to do what I'm supposed to," the senior cornerback said. "My dad always told me, 'Some people have the straight and narrow road, some people have bumps they have to get around.' I've had [bumps]. But I'm still here and I'm doing it."
He is still here, and he is playing some amazing football. Neither appeared likely a year ago.
About as likely, actually, as a quarterback throwing to the same receiver, testing the same cornerback four times in five plays. That's what happened Saturday during a Purdue drive that BTN play-by-play announcer Eric Collins described as "the greatest bit of defensive work you're ever going to see!"
Carter capped those four pass break-ups with his fourth career interception, and first career touchdown. He's now tied for third in Division I in pass breakups with 13 this year.
He's got above-average speed, Claeys said, and good hands. He's put on 45 pounds since arriving as a freshman, and his size allows him to play a physical style. And mostly, he's got those eyes.
"It's all about eye control in the secondary. He's doing a great job of having his eyes where they're supposed to be," Claeys said. "He does a good job studying the film, too."
Studying used to be a problem for Carter, and not just in football. Like a lot of athletes, he came to college to play sports and considered everything else a detail. School takes effort, and he didn't bother. If he went to class, he would just sit and listen, rarely taking notes.
Carter had conflicts with Jerry Kill and his coaching staff almost from the moment the newcomers arrived in Minnesota in December 2010, and his attitude didn't improve as the season approached. He arrived late for meetings, didn't work hard on the practice field, and cared little about going to class or getting good grades. The coaches in turn barely played him and Carter watched most games from the sideline. He appeared in only five games, made just nine tackles all year.
At the end of the season, Carter considered quitting and going home to Pompano Beach, Fla.
"I was like one inch" from leaving, he said. "It was very close. I sat down, looked in the mirror and said, 'What are you going to do'?"
His cousin, former Gophers All-America Tyrone Carter, flew in and confronted him, told him he was embarrassing him and besmirching the family name. His mother challenged him to stay in school, not to waste his opportunity. Kill warned him that his future was in doubt, but said he would be welcomed back if he would just change his ways.
Carter listened. He grew up. And it really did happen just that fast, he said.
"I stayed, and I'm glad I'm in Minnesota. I feel like if I had gone home, played for a school [in Florida], I would have been too close to my family and friends, and my love of the game would have gone away," he said. "I feel like God put me in this situation to achieve my goals. And if it takes a longer route to get there, at least I'm there, where he wants me to be."
And where the Gophers want him, too -- turning their pass defense into the best in the Big Ten, as measured by pass efficiency.
"He worked hard in the spring and never took [a play] off. That showed us he was serious about" changing, Claeys said. "He's always had the ability, but now he works hard and he does what we ask him to. Not everybody gets started on the right foot. But he made the changes we asked for, and we basically forget about it and move on."