James Carpenter won a BCS championship at Alabama in 2010, so you’d think he’d be prepared to make his first appearance in the NFL playoffs.
But the comparison isn’t as simple as it would seem for the Seattle Seahawks’ left guard from Hephzibah.
“Going into the national championship game, that was the biggest game you could play in college,” Carpenter said. “But the NFL is a whole different ballgame and totally different.”
It certainly hasn’t been an easy transition for the 6-foot-5, 321-pound offensive lineman. The Seahawks drafted Carpenter 25th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft after an all-Southeastern Conference season at left tackle for the Crimson Tide. He was expected to be another foundation piece for the front line.
But knee injuries interrupted both his rookie and second seasons in the NFL. It wasn’t until August that Carpenter finally felt healthy enough to start having the impact that’s long been expected of him.
“It’s been great getting back,” he said. “I’ve had a couple injuries that have finally healed and I finally got the chance to learn everything about playing left guard in the NFL.
“It was really tough to have an ACL and MCL injury. But I got my motivation from playing at Alabama and being tough and working extremely hard. I had my family to keep me motivated all the time and pray for me. It’s alright. Finally I made it through and I’m just going to keep getting better.”
Other than getting healthy, the best thing that’s happened to Carpenter is making the move to left guard instead of right tackle where he started eight games as a rookie. He’s split the role in 16 games this season with Paul McQuistan, starting 10 games.
“It’s a great switch,” he said. “That’s the type of player I am – big, strong, physical player. So left guard is where I fit the best.”
The move has encouraged the Seahawks coaching staff.
“He’s becoming what we picked him to be,” offensive line coach Tom Cable told Seahawk.com in December. “And that’s good. Because he’s been through all the traumas and all the ups and downs you go through when you’re young. He’s played quite well lately.”
The Seahawks earned the top seed and homefield advantage in the NFC thanks largely to its top-ranked defense. The offensive line, however, has been under serious criticism all season – grading out from several sources among the least reliable in the league.
But that hasn’t stopped running back Marshawn Lynch and quarterback Russell Wilson from leading the NFL’s fourth-best rushing attack that averages 136.8 yards per game. Though Lynch’s production and yards per carry decreased, he still rushed for 1,257 yards and 12 touchdowns in the regular season with his tackle-busting style.
Carpenter says Lynch is a pleasure to block for.
“He’s got the style that I really like,” said the lineman who blocked for future NFL players Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy in college. “He’s one of the most physical players I’ve ever played with. So it’s great playing with Marshawn.”
Seattle is a heavy favorite going up against New Orleans in the NFC Divisional playoffs on Saturday. The Seahawks thrashed the Saints 34-7 only a month ago.
“They’re a great team,” Carpenter said. “It’s the playoffs and we’re prepared and we’re going to go out and play like we usually do.”
But don’t try to get Carpenter to make any predictions. When it comes to some topics, he’s as quiet as the stubbornly stoic Lynch.
Do the Seahawks feel the pressure to perform and live up to that top seed in the NFC?
“I don’t think that’s a question I can answer,” Carpenter said.
Is reaching the Super Bowl the only thing that will make this season a success?
“Again, that’s not a question I can answer, either,” he said. “That’s in the future.”
What the future holds for Carpenter might depend on how he performs this postseason. During the season he gave up just four sacks and eight quarterback pressures, but his pass-blocking efficiency isn’t highly regarded. If he doesn’t start proving to be the No. 1 draft pick they expected by the next training camp, the Seahawks may have to decide whether to stick with his $2.4 million salary cap figure next season or find someone else.
“I don’t know,” Carpenter said. “I just try to play as good as I can and not worry about decisions.”
For now, his long journey from Hephzibah to junior college to Alabama to the NFL is paying off with an opportunity any football player craves. Carpenter said his parents and two sisters will be in Seattle on Saturday to share the moment.
“I went to a lot of schools and stuff and it really helped me out a lot,” Carpenter said. “I learned a lot of stuff from everywhere I went.”