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November 10, 2010

King continues steady play for the Carolina Panthers

By: Jimmy Robertson

Jeff King

Most Tech fans remember the day that Jeff King committed to come to Virginia Tech and the excitement that a relative local boy – King went to Pulaski County High, just 30 minutes or so from the Tech campus – created with that commitment.

Hard to believe, but that day was nearly 10 years ago.

The former Tech tight end is now in his fifth season with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, and he does more than just fill a roster spot. King starts for the Panthers and has been doing so since his second season.

“I don’t know if I would say I’m surprised,” King said. “If you can just get in somewhere and show the coaches that you can work hard and be consistent, you can carve a niche for yourself in this league. There is no magic formula.

“It really goes back to the things that Coach Beamer and his staff preach at Virginia Tech. Just work hard, be consistent and take care of the little things. They really prepared me for the NFL.”

The Panthers drafted King in the fifth round of the 2006 NFL Draft. That happened after a senior season in which King set career highs in catches (26) and touchdown receptions (6) at Tech. He earned second-team All-ACC recognition for his efforts.

It also occurred after a career in which he played in 53 games, most as a starter, and caught 58 passes, 11 for touchdowns.

The Panthers drafted him as a back-up to tight end Kris Mangum and also as a special teams contributor. His first season in the NFL, he caught just one pass – for a touchdown against Atlanta – but he played in 12 games, which showed the confidence that the coaching staff displayed in him.

His second season turned out to be his breakout campaign. He started all 16 games and caught 46 passes for 406 yards. Two of his catches went for touchdowns.

Since then, he’s started every game but two.

“I’ve just tried to get better from year to year,” King said. “I don’t really look back. I’m sure at some point, I’ll look back on it and be proud, but right now, my focus is on keeping my job and working hard. I take things day to day.”

King credits a lot of his success to Mangum, who served as the starter in 2006, the year King arrived. But Mangum, who retired after that 2006 season, shepherded King in King’s rookie season, showing him the ropes and what it took to be a professional in the NFL. Mangum played in the league 10 years, all with the Panthers, so he knew his stuff.

“He really took me under his wing and I appreciated that,” King said. “He showed me how to be a pro and how to get better each and every day. You couldn’t ask for anyone better to help you. He did things the right way. He’s a guy I give a lot of credit to.”

Of course, it also helped to have some former Hokies around. James Anderson, a whip linebacker at Tech, also plays for the Panthers, having been drafted in the third round in the same year that King was drafted. Anderson, too, starts, having done so in every game this season.

Fellow former Hokies Kevin McCadam, Chad Beasley and Will Montgomery have spent time with the Panthers as well over the course of the past five years. None remain with the team, but at least during their time in Charlotte, they provided King with familiar faces to help with the transition.

“They definitely made it easier,” King said. “It’s always good to have some familiar faces around. When you don’t know what’s going on, it’s good to have a person that you know in the same situation as you.”

King’s numbers on the field have dipped the past few seasons, but that goes more back to the Panthers’ struggles at the quarterback position. Jake Delhomme spent much of 2007 injured, and then last year, Delhomme struggled before going on injured reserve with a broken finger on his throwing hand.

The Panthers scuttled Delhomme after last season. This season, head coach John Fox has used both Matt Moore and rookie Jimmy Clausen with little success.

“It’s been disappointing,” King said. “To start out 0-5 and struggle, and to struggle like we did as an offense, has been disappointing. The NFL is not fun unless you are winning.

“But I think we’re getting better. We’ve continued to work hard. There’s some light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve just got to keep digging ourselves out.”

King’s contract expires at the end of this season. Before the season began, he signed a one-year, $1.759 million contract with Carolina. He hopes to stick around with the organization but admitted he gave it little thought.

“It’s day to day with me,” he said. “I’m only thinking about how I can get better that day. Whatever the future holds, it holds. I’m not focused on it.”

He does remain focused on his alma mater. Between lifting, watching film, attending practices and playing games, King still manages to keep up with the Hokies and occasionally makes it back to Blacksburg during an off week for a game.

“If there’s not a TV around, I’m always finding something to check the score,” he said. “I’m constantly keeping in touch with Coach [Billy] Hite and those guys. I keep up as much as I can.”

He also keeps up with the basketball program. He played for Seth Greenberg and the Hokies during his junior year, seeing action in 16 games, and he makes sure that his Carolina Panther teammates have heard about his basketball prowess.

“Oh, they’ve heard about them,” King laughed. “I bring it up every now and then.

“I saw where those guys were picked to finish second [in the ACC]. That’s great. I wish them well.”

And Tech fans certainly continue to wish him well. After watching a local boy make good, it’s the least they can do.