OXNARD, Calif. -- The play ended before Dallas Cowboys linebacker Bruce Carter could reach the end zone with his interception, whistled to a stop by coaches to keep drills moving in a timely manner.
But Carter's pick against quarterback Tony Romo, and other plays like it during the early stages of training camp, have cast the second-year pro in a different light with coaches and teammates than the rookie who played sparingly last season while recuperating from major knee surgery.
"He's night-and-day different than what we had last year," said defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who lists Carter as a second-teamer on the depth chart but has him splitting first-team reps with Dan Connor at one inside linebacker spot. "His work ethic's improved. So he's really ready to make a big jump, and we're excited for him. The game is slowing down for him, and when it slows down for a really good athlete like him, good things are coming... He's going to have a much bigger role this year."
Carter, a three-year starter and 2010 Butkus Award finalist at North Carolina, had been projected as a first-round pick until he tore the ACL in his knee during the final regular-season game of his senior season. That dropped his stock heading into the 2011 NFL Draft, in which the Cowboys took him with a second-round pick. They did so with the knowledge that he would spend much of his rookie season rehabilitating the knee and learning the playbook.
For Carter, the fruits of those efforts are coming into focus. Carter (6-foot-2, 240 pounds) has drawn praise from owner Jerry Jones for his training camp progress and is expected to push Connor for the starting job.
Carter's first opportunity to turn heads in a high-profile setting comes in Monday's preseason opener against the Oakland Raiders in Oakland, Calif. (7 p.m., ESPN, KTVT/11).
"The hardest thing for me has been taking it from the playbook to the field, at game speed," said Carter, who downplayed concerns about living up to the preseason praise from Ryan and Jones.
"I don't think it puts any pressure on me," Carter said. "I'm just excited to get out there. It feels like forever for me since I even played football. To get out here and showcase myself is nice. I'm a playmaker. I like to show my talents off and make plays."
Carter displayed a knack for blocking kicks in college, leading the nation in blocked kicks (5) as a sophomore. He blocked three punts in one quarter during a game against Connecticut and, as a Cowboys rookie, deflected a punt that set up a touchdown in last year's 20-7 loss to Philadelphia on Dec. 24.
But he made only one tackle -- an assisted one, at that -- during a handful of snaps as a defensive player. Now that Carter is healthy and claims to understand Ryan's defensive scheme "like the back of my hand," Cowboys coaches expect much more in 2012.
Asked if he is starting to see glimpses of the Carter who made 190 tackles during his final three seasons in college, Ryan nodded his head.
"And then some," Ryan said. "He was outstanding athletically. But his scheme [in college] was a little different. I think he'll make more plays for us than he did for them. We've put him inside. I think he'll be a better factor inside than outside."
Carter agreed. At North Carolina, he played outside linebacker and teams often ran away from him. Under Ryan's scheme, he is listed as an inside linebacker but will have flexibility to line up in other spots.
"Rob's system is kind of multiple. You can play [inside], you can play at defensive end, anywhere," Carter said. "With that type of scheme, it allows me to use my ability. I feel like I'm an athletic type of linebacker, and I can do a lot of things."
Carter's emergence has struck a chord with fellow inside linebacker Orie Lemon, who is listed as the backup to starter Sean Lee. Lemon, a second-year pro from Oklahoma State, said Carter has reached the point at which he reacts naturally on the field because he's comfortable in the scheme.
"He knows everything and he's blowing plays up and making plays," Lemon said. "I'm trying to get to that position, too. But I've still got a lot of work to do."
Carter, from all indications, is there. That is why Connor offered a quick "no" when asked if he felt like he had separated himself from Carter based on the initial depth chart of training camp.
"He's a great athlete," Connor said of Carter. "He's young but he's got a ton of potential. He's big, he's strong and he's fast. There's not much more you could ask for out of a linebacker."
Lee, who made a monumental jump in production in his second season as a Cowboy, indicated a similar spike could be possible for Carter.
"The sense of urgency from year one to year two has picked up. He wants to find a way to get better every day," Lee said. "That's how I was. It's a matter of time before he's going to be a really good football player and he's showing it right now."
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760