Rucker aims to get back on track

After recording a combined 31 sacks in his previous three seasons as a full-time starter, including a career-high 12 in 2003, Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker stumbled a bit last season fending off nagging injuries and an irregular heartbeat that sidelined him for parts of two games to finish with just 3.5 sacks.

"You can't tell me one athlete that hasn't had a slump, whether it be a hitting slump, a shooting slump or whatever," Rucker said. "It's just that last season wasn't the best year. But it gives me motivation to come back strong this year. I'm coming in this year looking at it as starting with a clean slate."

It wasn't that Rucker was horrible season in 2004.

He still had 23 quarterback hurries - second most in the career - and 65 tackles and was a solid contributor during the second half of last season.

But for one reason or another, Rucker struggled with putting the quarterback on his back.

"A quarterback can come out of his step and fall down and cats are diving for him and you might not got him before someone else," Rucker said. "You might have been a hair off. Does that mean you're not a good football player? Does that mean you're not doing other things good? No."

Although Rucker has been around long enough to know that sacks aren't everything when it comes to being a valuable defensive end, it still became a source of irritation answering questions about his dwindling sack total.

It quickly turned into a long season when two-time All-Pro Kris Jenkins went on injured reserve four weeks into the season, meaning Rucker had to fend off even more double teams.

It wasn't until Dec. 5 that Rucker got his first full sack of the season. But he finished strong with three sacks in the final five games.

"I think Mike was a little bit like our team as a whole," Panthers head coach John Fox said. "We started slow and finished better.

"Some of that was due to injuries and some of the people who were in the game. But at the end of the day I think it was a learning experience for Mike Rucker and I know he's going about his business at a high level this season. I'm anxious to see how he performs this season."

Rucker, 30, is still working at his familiar spot at right defensive end, opposite Julius Peppers, a player many believe will become the league's premier pass rusher.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that Rucker should be more productive this season with Jenkins returning to the lineup.

Rucker also said he hasn't had anymore problems with an irregular heartbeat, something he endured midway through last season that forced trainers to remove him early from two different games.

There's never been a real solid explanation for the problem -- at least publicly - but Rucker doesn't seem worried he'll have any more heart problems.

"We haven't had any problems with it, so we haven't thought any more about it. We're good," Rucker said.

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