Carter's comeback on track with 'Skins

Oft-injured running back making most of chance

November 23, 2001|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

ASHBURN, Va. - If you can think of Ki-Jana Carter as a world-class runner who has spent more time on the shelf than on the track, then you can understand why he's ready to turn on Maurice Greene-type speed all the time.

But, then, with all the stops and starts he's had in six NFL seasons, it's also logical for Carter, the Washington Redskins' backup running back, to want to employ the marathoner's strategy and save some energy for the final kick, hoping, this time, to finish the race.

"Every time I go out there and they call my play, I want to go 100 miles an hour, but you can't because you have to let the game happen for you," Carter said. "It takes time, but you have to know that going into the game and try to control your energy as much as possible."

So far, Carter, Washington's third-down back and backup kickoff returner, has matched energy and performance impressively, with 243 all-purpose yards, between pass catching, rushing and running back kicks.

The totals aren't necessarily show-stopping, but given the long, bumpy road Carter has traveled to get to this point, those numbers are awfully significant, On a team that has made a Lazarus-like turnaround from an 0-5 start, Carter's story is one of the more captivating.

"He's excited. The fun of the game is back into him and he's helping us out tremendously," said Redskins defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, who played with Carter for three years in Cincinnati. "I think from a coaching standpoint, when they first brought him here, I don't think they realized how much of an impact he would have. He's been great."

Carter, a star at Penn State, was the first player chosen in the 1995 draft by the Bengals, but rushed for only 747 yards in five seasons, as one major injury after another disrupted his progress.

Right out of the gate, Carter got hurt, tearing a ligament in his left knee in his first exhibition game in 1995. He came back in 1996 and stayed healthy in 1997, but he broke his wrist in the 1998 season opener, playing only one game that season, then he dislocated his right kneecap in the third game of the 1999 season.

"He had the worst of all bad luck," said Wilkinson, who was taken first overall in the draft by the Bengals the year before Carter. "Of course, it's hard. You lose confidence, and you lose excitement for the game. He went through some very hard times."

Not surprisingly, Carter got the reputation of being fragile, and the Bengals cut him to clear salary cap room after the 1999 season. He sat out all of last year, only drawing tryouts from two teams.

Still, Carter said he knew once doctors told him he was healthy, he would get another chance.

"I would ask them [doctors], `how will I bounce back, will I be fine again?' " Carter said. "They told me 100 percent. Once I heard that, I knew that eventually I would heal up and I would be fine, because this game is more than 90 percent mental. Everybody has the physical abilities around here, but when you get caught up with some adversity, it becomes a two-way road, and you have to decide which way you'll go. You can go positive or you can let all the negativity tear you down."

To the contrary, Carter, who said some friends didn't even know he was back in football, tried out with the Redskins the first day of training camp in late July, earning an incentive-laden contract and the backup role behind Stephen Davis.

"I've talked to him [Carter] briefly about it [coming back from injuries] and he's feeling very, very comfortable with his progress, with his knee and all," Washington coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "And there's no evidence at this juncture that there's any adverse affects from the injury."

Carter has run for 116 yards, averaging an impressive 7.3 yards a carry. Just as important as his running and pass catching, Carter has won over Schottenheimer and quarterback Tony Banks with his ability to pick up defenders on third-down blocks.

"That's always essential, anytime you're a third-down back," Banks said. "A lot of third-down backs are a little smaller and not able to do the things that he can do in pass blocking. He's been pretty stout and he's knowledgeable because the third-down packages are when you get a bunch of different looks and different blitzes, so you've got to be knowledgeable and he's done a great job."

And while many may be surprised by how Carter has run with this latest, and perhaps, last sprint to stardom, the one person who isn't is Carter himself.

"Basically, everything that I thought about in the off-season, it has come to pass or it's happening now," Carter said. "I knew that all my stuff was with injuries. I knew that my ability to play the game and to be successful at the game was still there. It was just about me getting a chance."

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