LAS VEGAS -- The NFL never occurred to TCU linebacker Tank Carder when he arrived in 2007. You can't blame him.
The senior was barely recruited out of Class 3A Sweeny High School until TCU gave him his only NCAA Division I offer.
"To make it to college you have to stand out in high school and to make it to the NFL you have to stand out in college," Carder said Wednesday as the Mountain West Conference Media Days were winding down. "That's the only thing that occurred to me when I got to TCU."
Now, after a defining performance in the Rose Bowl in which he instinctively batted down Wisconsin's potential game-tying 2-point pass conversion to clinch the victory for TCU, Carder is the face of TCU's celebrated defense, which has led the nation the last three seasons. He was named the MWC Defensive Player of the Year last season, and he begins his final year at TCU as the MWC Preseason Defensive Player of the Year.
"You can't put words to it," Carder said. "I come out of a small 3A school and TCU is my only Division I offer so to come out on top of that is so unreal."
It has also given Carder hope that he'll continue a TCU tradition of sending linebackers to the NFL. The four linebackers before Carder are all playing in the NFL, including Jason Phillips, David Hawthorne, Robert Henson and Daryl Washington. Carder used to live with Washington when they started together in 2009.
"It seems like TCU has been Linebacker U the last four years," said Carder, who is on several top awards watch lists.
TCU coach Gary Patterson admits he didn't foresee Carder's success.
"But you could see on film he made plays," Patterson said of recruiting Carder. "He was an instinct guy and anything he's ever touched in his life he's always been a winner at, whether it's BMX or riding a surf board with his dog on it."
Carder, who was a BMX champion at age 10, is an avid wakeboarder and has two English Bulldogs, including Boss, who has been known to ride the board with Carder.
Patterson deflects the credit for producing NFL-caliber players, including five drafted in April and six more who have signed as free agents this week.
"Guys learn how to make plays or they don't," Patterson said of his linebackers. "There are a lot of guys who look the part, can run fast, jump high, but they're always standing around piles and don't make tackles. We've been very fortunate to have a bunch of guys who have learned how to make plays."
Last year Carder was coming off shoulder surgery and wore an arm brace through the first six games. He didn't feel comfortable until he was able to shed the brace.
"I was tentative and restrained because I had the arm brace on," he said. "It was halfway through the season before I started feeling real good."
By then, Carder was able to play with "controlled fury," as Patterson and defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas refer to it.
"You play with reckless abandon but have discipline while you're out there trying to take people's heads off," said Carder, who had another procedure on his shoulder a week after the Rose Bowl. He stayed away from contact during the spring but has been "100 percent" since May.
"It's a big weight off to be able to open up and play up to your full potential," said Carder, who is quick to praise his teammates, including fellow linebacker Tanner Brock.
"If you see me make a play it's because the guy to my right got in there and held a block or beat his block and my blocker had to go block him," he said. "It's a total team effort. The guys all around me are what make me good."