BRADENTON, Fla. — Haruki Nakamura looks forward to the day when he no longer has the following qualifier behind his name: Ed Reed’s backup.
That day is Sunday.
Nakamura, the understudy for four years behind the perennial Pro Bowl safety and future Hall-of-Famer, left Baltimore this winter for the chance to start for the Panthers. There were no guarantees when Nakamura signed a three-year, $4.8 million deal with Carolina early in free agency.
If nothing else, Nakamura would give the Panthers a proven special teams player if he failed to beat out Sherrod Martin at free safety. But after coming off the bench for each of his 63 games (including the postseason) with the Ravens, Nakamura is expected to get his first start this week against Tampa Bay.
“It means a lot. I don’t want to say I’m quite satisfied because you only can be satisfied if you have a successful season,” Nakamura said Thursday after practice at IMG Academy. “I’ve always been a guy to take things one week at a time.”
For at least 17 weeks a year in Baltimore, that meant accepting a part-time role behind one of the best safeties in NFL history. Nakamura was like the guy who serves as the stunt double to George Clooney: He might get to stand in every once in a while, but never for very long.
“I was very fortunate to learn from (Reed) and learn from the Baltimore mentality as a defense,” Nakamura said. “I’m just happy to bring myself and my family down here.”
Nakamura has been fighting for respect for most of his 26 years, not just the four he spent in Baltimore. Nakamura, 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds, grew up outside of Cleveland, where he was a second-team, all-state receiver/defensive back who drew only mild interest from the likes of Ohio State and Notre Dame.
He signed with Cincinnati, and was an All-Big East selection as a senior after leading the Bearcats with 95 tackles. After the Ravens selected Nakamura in the sixth round in 2008, he took his place behind Reed and made his name as a special teams player.
“I’m a blue-collar guy. I work my butt off. I’ve always been told I was the shortest guy, smallest guy, couldn’t do this, couldn’t do that,” Nakamura said. “I don’t want to say I hold grudges, but that’s a grudge I’ve held for my whole life. Just having that as motivation and just being raised by my mother and the way she did it.”
His mother, Karen, had sole responsibility for her four children after her husband, Ryozo, a Judo master and former coach of Japan’s Olympic Judo team, died of lung cancer when Nakamura was 5.
“Basically the roof came down on her” following her husband’s death, Nakamura said. “She supported us through all the trials and errors of life and things she went through. She just got up to work every single day, whether she was sick or whatever.”
Nakamura maintains the same type lunch-pail approach. He said earlier this week he still considers himself a special teams player.
In addition to his play-making ability, the Panthers like how Nakamura communicates in the secondary and his postseason pedigree.
The Ravens made the playoffs all four years Nakamura was in Baltimore. He had seven tackles in seven postseason games, and notched his only career interception when he picked off Matt Cassel in a Wild Card victory against Kansas City in January 2011.
“He’s come in and done a nice job blending in with his new teammates. Job description-wise, he’s made the plays he’s needed to make,” Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said.
“We know he comes from a good defensive program in terms of what they did in Baltimore, and we like what he’s brought to the table for us here. That said, we’ve got 10 other guys on the field, too, that are all part of the whole defense.”
Martin, who struggled with missed tackles last season, alternated with Nakamura during the preseason and figures to be in the rotation Sunday against the Bucs. But after years of waiting behind a star in Baltimore, Nakamura is ready for his close-up.
The Panthers believe he’s ready, too.
“I think he’s helped with the development of some of the other guys in terms of his own practical experience, having been on the field for a team like Baltimore and the success they’ve had,” coach Ron Rivera said. “He’s had the opportunity to watch behind Reed, who I think is one of the finest safeties to play the game.”
Now it’s Nakamura’s turn.