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After 3 disappointing seasons, Panthers WR Dwayne Jarrett ready to finally contribute

Dwayne Jarrett laughed Sunday when told he's the same age as Carolina rookie teammate Brandon LaFell, fully aware of the implications.

At 23, LaFell is considered the future of the Panthers' receivers. At 23, the bust label is gaining steam for Jarrett after three ineffective seasons that have produced as many arrests as touchdown catches.

Only Jarrett on Sunday looked and sounded like a different person. He talked of how he's finally matured, slimmed down, got fit, is comfortable with the offense and not ready to concede the open starting job to LaFell or anybody else.

"I just wasn't aware. It was all a part of growing up and becoming a pro," Jarrett said. "I didn't quite fully understand that, what it took. The offseason workouts, watching your diet and the little things, the details of becoming a pro. Once I got it, I took it and I ran with it."

The 6-foot-4 Jarrett has had a good training camp. Down 9 pounds to 209, he looks quicker, yet still has the size to make difficult catches in traffic. While he was chastised by coaches early in camp for running the wrong route, those mistakes are less routine nowadays.

But perhaps most significantly, Jarrett seems to be taking things more serious after spending the past three seasons playing only 29 games with 33 catches and one touchdown.

"When I got here back in the spring the thing I mentioned is I don't care about what he did in the past. He has a clean slate with me," Panthers first-year receivers coach Tyke Tolbert said. "What he's going to be judged on by me is what he does from this day forward. And he's done everything we've asked him to do. He's making plays on the ball."

It's what the Panthers expected three years ago when they took the then-20-year-old with a second-round pick in 2007 and then cut Keyshawn Johnson days later.

Jarrett was fresh off setting the Southern California career record with 41 touchdowns in only three seasons. He was supposed to be the big, possession receiver opposite the small and speedy Steve Smith.

Only Jarrett wasn't ready for the NFL. He would get jammed at the line of scrimmage and struggled to learn the playbook as a rookie. Smith embarrassed him after practice one day by telling him to watch film instead of talking to reporters.

Jarrett was inactive in nine games and caught six passes. He topped it off in the offseason by getting arrested for driving while impaired.

Jarrett kept finding the inactive list over the next two seasons, too. He caught just 10 passes in 2008 and 17 last season.

While he did close the season with five catches for 68 yards and his first TD against New Orleans, Jarrett bashing was a familiar theme for frustrated fans.

"I think I took a lot of low blows coming in my first couple of years just because I did have a lot of downs," Jarrett said. "I'm definitely strong and I fought through everything, all the negativity. I just tried to stay positive and focused on what I have to do to become a better player."

The light clicked for Jarrett in the offseason. He started watching his diet. He worked out more and lost weight and caught the eye of coaches in June workouts as they looked to replace veteran starter Muhsin Muhammad, who wasn't re-signed.

"It's all a part about growing up," Jarrett said. "The NFL, if anybody could do it everybody would be doing it. I had to get around that learning curve. I think once I did, especially coming in this year being way under my weight and just being more explosive off the ball. I just thank God for just getting me the work ethic to get to this point."

Jarrett still faces a difficult challenge, and a roster spot isn't even guaranteed. The Panthers took LaFell and Armanti Edwards in the third round of the draft. Kenny Moore and Wallace Wright have spent time with the starters as Smith remains sidelined with a broken arm.

Jarrett, who had one catch for 7 yards against Baltimore last week, is expected to start in Saturday's preseason game against the New York Jets.

"When I got here and they were telling me about the guys they had they said he's been a little inconsistent," Tolbert said. "He's done a great job up until this point, so hopefully he keeps it up."

It's the kind of praise Jarrett has rarely received in an NFL career he still hopes to salvage. He won't turn 24 until next month.

"I got drafted so young ... I was kind of like a teenager in the NFL," Jarrett said. "With that and having the experience of everything that I went through to this point, it's definitely a growth process."