CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Lamar Smith won the first battle between Carolina's running backs, getting the jersey number rookie DeShaun Foster coveted. That's OK with Foster, who has bigger goals in mind.
Foster, Carolina's second-round draft pick, wants to be the Panthers' starting running back, but Smith, a free-agent signee, is likely first on the depth chart. Even worse, Smith wears the No. 26 Foster donned at UCLA and hoped to have again in the NFL.
Since Smith has seniority and choice of jersey number, Foster has put his sights on what he can control - winning the starting job in the backfield.
"When I get in there, I want to show them I can play," Foster said.
That's the Panthers' hope. Although they signed Smith away from Miami during the offseason, they're willing to give Foster an immediate shot at the job.
"We really don't have an established, featured runner yet," Panthers running backs coach Jim Skipper said. "So in essence, the job's wide open."
Foster is off to a quick start, impressing the coaching staff with how quickly he's picked up the playbook in just three days of minicamp.
"At this point he's doing what we expect of him," Skipper said. "The guy's got good athletic ability. The thing that's real good, that I'm very impressed with, is he's not struggling with the system.
"He's catching on real good. He has no problems learning, and that's the number one key. As soon as you can just react and be natural with things, then the better you're going to excel. So mentally, he's right on cue."
Foster credits Smith for helping him fit in.
"I'm learning new things from him," Foster said. "He's telling me stuff how he runs and hits holes and how he's patient. I think it's going to do me a lot of good."
Foster has been hard at work trying to shake his reputation as a fumbler. It followed him at UCLA, where he lost the ball seven times - including four times in a game against Ohio State.
He's confident he has turned around the situation.
"It's behind me," he said. "I'm not worried about it."
Skipper might have something to do with that. He was at the UCLA game and talked to Foster afterward in the locker room, giving him tips on how to carry the football and encouraging him to remain focused.
Foster bounced back two weeks later when he broke UCLA's single-game rushing record by running for 301 yards and four touchdowns in a victory over Washington.
"He didn't go into the tank," Skipper said. "If he went in the tank, then you wouldn't be able to correct the guy."
New Panthers coach John Fox said the fumbling label didn't bother the Panthers, who expected Foster to be drafted in the first round and jumped on him when he was still there at the start of the second round.
"Fumbling is something that's correctable," Fox said. "Speed? Not very correctable. Size? Not very correctable. But in DeShaun's case, we felt it was an issue that we could help as a coaching staff. We felt good about that. We feel very fortunate to have him here."
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