CHARLOTTE, N. C. -- Surveying his new domain, Deon Grant envisioned a remarkable career.
The former Josey supernova galloped about the Carolina Panthers' practice field while sporadic rain drops sneaked out of the looming clouds. Just a stone's throw from Ericsson Stadium, Grant made his debut in an NFL uniform Friday morning in the Panthers' first workout of a three-day minicamp.
Gone were the effects of a pulled hamstring that sent him tumbling to the 57th pick in the April 15th draft. The 21-year-old Augusta native exuded optimism while discussing prospects for his rookie season with Carolina.
Grant pictures himself duplicating the performance that earned him All-SEC achievements as a safety for the Tennessee Volunteers. The 6-foot-1, 207-pound ball-hawk led the nation with nine interceptions as a junior last year and anticipates a smooth transition into the pro game.
"I thought it would be a lot harder," Grant said. "I'm out there to make myself better. I know I can do the same thing here."
Panthers quarterback Steve Beuerlein already owns No. 7, the number Grant wore at Tennessee. So Friday, the flamboyant safetysported No. 27.
The two digits equal his number at Josey (9), but he refused to suit up without his favoritenumber on his back.
"I had to have seven in there somewhere," said Grant, who won a state championship with Josey in 1995 and a national championship with the Vols in 1998.
Listed as the No. 2 safety, Grant is gunning for the starting job when the Panthers open their 2000 season Sept. 3 at Washington. Second-year Carolina coach George Seifert said Grant and first-round pick Rashard Anderson will work with the first team at both safety positions.
Needing to solidify their pass defense (ranked 23rd in 1999), the Panthers used their first two draft picks this year on defensive backs. Four-year veteran Mike Minter enters the preseason starting at free safety, but Seifert gushed over Grant's mobility.
"It all remains to be seen (who will start)," Seifert said. "The fluidness of his movement, everything is in front of him. It's up to him how far he takes it."
Grant, who hasn't signed a contract yet, practiced kick returns in addition to working in the secondary Friday. He said is confident he can make an instant impact.
The Panthers surrendered nine passing plays of 47 yards or longer last year, putting defensive backs at a premium in the draft. Inquiries into his aspirations evoked a sly grin from Grant, who expects the new faces in the secondary to push the veterans.
"I'll try to get myself up," Grant said. "I hope (starting) is everybody's goal. It will make us a better secondary. We just have to come in and make something happen."
The disappointment of not being a first-round draft pick has dissipated. Working without pads in black Panthers shorts, Grant exhibited the blinding speed that made the Carolina brass salivate.
Ericsson Stadium is less than a three-hour drive from Augusta, and Grant anxiously awaits the Panthers' home opener (Atlanta, Sept. 17). Staring down at his white jersey, Grant knows he already has surpassed many of his boyhood ambitions.
"It's a blessing; it's something I've dreamed about all my life," he said.
Reach Jimmy DeButts at (706) 823-3221.
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