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Sunday, October 15, 2006

Ma'ake Kemoeatu returns 'home' today

Kemoeatu returns 'home' today

CHARLOTTE, N.C. » Maake Kemoeatu stayed out of the headlines when he played in Baltimore. But when the run-stopping defensive tackle left the Ravens to sign a five-year, $23 million free-agent deal with Carolina in the offseason, Ray Lewis was upset.

"He loves the game, so any time you lose someone like that it's a hurtful thing, especially at this point in my career," the seven-time Pro Bowl pick said last week. "His best football is in front of him because he is still learning so much."

Lewis will see Kemoeatu again today when the Panthers visit Baltimore.

"It'll be like going back home," Kemoeatu said. "I'll see those guys on the field, and it'll be fun to go back and play with them."

The Kahuku graduate said the decision to go to Carolina was strictly business. The Panthers, determined to improve their run defense after giving up 190 yards rushing to Seattle in the NFC championship game, overwhelmed him with their contract offer on the first day of free agency.

"Thanks to Baltimore for teaching me all sides of football," Kemoeatu said. "They pretty much raised me over there, and then Carolina came and said they were interested. I just left it to the business side of it."

His signing gave Carolina one of the biggest tackle tandems in the NFL. Kemoeatu is 6-foot-5 and 345 pounds. Kris Jenkins is listed at 6-4, 340.

"Kemo is huge. You put your hand by his head and it's just huge," Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker said.

There were questions about Kemoeatu's impact after Carolina gave up 252 yards rushing in a season-opening loss to Atlanta. But in the past two weeks, Carolina has held New Orleans to 63 yards on the ground and Cleveland to 91.

Kemoeatu and Jenkins have also clogged up the middle enough for defensive end Julius Peppers to get off to the best start in his pro career with six sacks in five games.

"I try to do my best, hanging in there, take double teams," Kemoeatu said. "That's what they brought me in here for, to see if I can free up people every now and then."

Doing the dirty work for Peppers and the low-profile role of stopping the run suits the low-key Kemoeatu, who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Utah in 2002. He slowly developed in Baltimore and had a breakout season in 2005, making a career-high 70 tackles. The Ravens allowed less than 100 yards rushing in 12 of their 16 games with Kemoeatu at nose tackle.

"It's great to watch him grow up as a professional," Baltimore coach Brian Billick said. "Watching him as an undrafted free agent, watching him flop around here as a rookie and watch with every year and every game get better and better and better. His pure joy for the game was fun to be around and he deserves what he got in the offseason."

Kemoeatu credits his development to Lewis.

"In four years, you really get to know somebody," Kemoeatu said. "He's always been a big brother-type. He's been a great leader for that defense. I took notes from him, learned a lot from him, just the way he plays with a passion. I learned a lot of that from Ray Lewis. We became good friends."

And Lewis is looking for his friend to do big things as he matures.

"I always tried to tell him to pick up the little tendencies and things like that," Lewis said. "When he really starts to grasp those things I think he's going to be a great, great player."

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