IRVING, Texas – It's astounding to think about where linebacker Bruce Carter was one year ago from this week.
This time last season, Carter was being activated for his first NFL game, as the Cowboys prepared to play the Eagles. With Philadelphia once again on the horizon for the first time this season, Carter's not only a starter, but a key component and leader, calling the defense in Sean Lee's absence.
Carter never started a game last season, while playing primarily on special teams. As he said, the situation he finds himself in today is a "whole lot different."
"Last year, I was just kind of nervous coming in playing in the NFL in my first game," Carter said. "This year I'm kind of really in the mix. The situation's kind of different with Sean being out."
In Carter's first game last weekend with a heightened role calling and setting the defense, the Cowboys held quarterback Eli Manning without a touchdown and to his lowest yardage total of the season.
Carter said everyone was on the same page, and while his new role may take some getting used to, he's starting to see teammates looking to him for guidance more than they had in the past.
"Any time you go on defense, you need somebody that's going to be vocal, and we can't look at the scoreboard despite the situation, and stuff like that," Carter said. "So I believe so, I think I did a pretty good job my first time managing it."
The linebacking corps played in its first contest Sunday without its leading tackler in Lee, while Lee's backup, Dan Connor, couldn't finish the game due to a neck injury. Despite the losses, linebackers Ernie Sims and Orie Lemon stepped in without seeming out of place, while Carter increased his mental workload.
Everything operated smoothly, which head coach Jason Garrett said stems from Carter, whom Garrett singled out Monday as a prime performer. He said he handled his increased role with ease, while still managing to cover and hit the ball carrier like he normally would.
Garrett isn't concerned about the added responsibilities pinned on Carter. In fact, Garrett said the greater responsibility will get him more invested in understanding the defense and communicating.
"He's one of those guys who can play on first and second down and is such a good athlete and such a good cover guy that he's going to play in third-down situations," Garrett said. "That's just the fact of it, and he's a pretty good special teams player, as well. You have to obviously count his reps and make sure he doesn't get too much work, but I think the added responsibility is going to help him as a player."
Carter said he expects his new job will get easier as the weeks progress. The game will begin to slow down, and he'll be more proactive tipping guys on what to expect next, once he begins to pick up on more keys. Carter may be more experienced, but he doesn't feel like a seasoned veteran just yet.
With more work in defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's scheme and with linebackers coach Matt Eberflus, who must also prepare Sims and Lemon for more playing time, Carter knows he hasn't reached his peak as a player.
"I've still got a lot of my game ahead of me," Carter said. "I'm still learning every day. I'm still learning a lot from Sean and Coach (Eberflus) and Rob. I wouldn't say I'm a vet. I've played, obviously, but I still feel like I'm young in the NFL."