The Panthers were roundly criticized by the sports talk radio portion of their fan base last month for not drafting a defensive tackle in the first round – or any of the six subsequent rounds, for that matter.
The Panthers did sign an undrafted defensive tackle – although Nate Chandler played three other positions before settling in on the defensive interior for UCLA.
Chandler only started five games as a fifth-year senior last fall, a disappointing college finish for a player who arrived at UCLA ranked among the top five tight ends in the country.
“I miss those days,” Chandler said Saturday. “But I’m on the defensive side now.”
And he’s in an NFL rookie minicamp, despite not getting an invitation to the combine or any of the all-star games for senior prospects.
“I didn’t have great numbers. My reps weren’t the same as other guys. And we didn’t have that great of a season, either,” explained Chandler, who had 16 tackles in 14 games for the 6-8 Bruins.
Chandler, 6-foot-4 and 294 pounds, isn’t certain how the Panthers discovered him, but thinks they heard good reports from the Bruins’ practices. He said he always went hard, even when his playing time was limited.
“On the film I just try to chase the ball. Even if I’m not in the play, I’m still running after the ball,” he said. “So maybe they liked that, as well.”
Chandler only played two years of varsity football at San Diego’s Mira Mesa High, where he also was on the baseball, basketball and track teams. After catching 36 passes for 512 yards and six touchdowns as a senior, Rivals.com rated him the top tight end in California and No. 5 nationally.
Chandler had visions of developing into a pass-catching tight end like former San Diego Chargers great Kellen Winslow when Karl Dorrell recruited him to UCLA.
But after a redshirt season and a coaching change – Rick Neuheisel replaced Dorrell before the 2008 season – Chandler alternated between tight end and offensive line, where he would occasionally line up as an eligible tackle.
He must not have been too eligible: Chandler caught only two passes for 8 yards in two seasons before being moved to defense.
It looked like a great move initially. In his first defensive start against Kansas State, Chandler racked up eight tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery.
“They put me at defensive end. There’s a lot more space out there,” Chandler said. “I was just trying to go 100 percent. That’s what I did, showed up and made plays.”
But there weren’t enough plays or days like the Kansas State game. After starting eight games in 2010, Chandler saw his playing time reduced last season as the Bruins rotated a number of players at defensive tackle.
Chandler said his time at UCLA – which included another coaching change when Jim Mora Jr. replaced Neuheisel at the end of last season – was “not at all” what he expected.
“But it’s about the journey,” Chandler added. “So I’m just on this ride and we’ll see where I finish out.”
Chandler hopes the journey includes stops in Spartanburg for training camp this summer, and Charlotte in the fall as a member of the Panthers’ 53-man roster.
It helps Chandler’s chances that the Panthers didn’t draft any defensive tackles. The only other tackles at this weekend’s minicamp are two late-round picks from the 2008 draft – Carlton Powell, who played three games with Atlanta last season, and Landon Cohen, who has 23 tackles in 25 career games with three teams.
Chandler said a couple of teams called him after he went undrafted, but he liked the message from Panthers defensive line coach Eric Washington.
“He said he really likes what he sees on film,” Chandler said. “He’s going to do whatever he can to (help) me make this team. But it’s really up to me and how I take it and how I improve over these next couple days.”