Rookie cornerback Captain Munnerlyn quickly captured the attention of his new Carolina Panthers teammates in training camp when he faced off with Steve Smith.

Munnerlyn, 5-8, 186 pounds, was assigned to play press coverage near the line of scrimmage against Smith, a 5-9, 190-pound four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver. Munnerlyn's job was to try to prevent Smith from getting started on his pass route.

"He's one of the only guys I've seen who sometimes gets a great jam on Steve Smith," defensive back Dante Wesley, an eight-year veteran, said of Munnerlyn. "He's shorter than Steve and it seems like he can use his strength to get under (Smith's) pads."

Munnerlyn, a seventh-round pick from South Carolina, was one of the strongest cornerbacks at the NFL scouting combine and also ran the 40-yard dash in a swift 4.51 seconds. Still, he slipped to the last round of the draft.

Once he was in uniform for the Panthers, however, he looked more like an early-round pick, earning the respect of Smith and other players, who found Munnerlyn neither intimidated nor overconfident.

"He came in very excited and very willing to learn," said Smith. "He came in like a sponge.

"He was real observant. I think that's helped him get into the position where he is and (to) get the opportunity to play as a seventh-round pick maybe more than people may have expected."

Munnerlyn beat out second-round pick Sherrod Martin Munnerlyn overcomes obstacles and third-year veteran C.J. Wilson for the No. 3 cornerback position and a spot in the nickel defensive package, which is used in passing situations.

He returns punts, ranking seventh in the NFL through two games with a 12.5-yard average per return. He also serves as an outside 'gunner' on special teams, where his assignment is to get downfield first to try to disrupt the return or make a tackle.

Munnerlyn made a key third-down pass deflection late in last week's game at Atlanta and his play has been a positive amid the Panthers' disappointing 0-2 start heading into tonight's game at Dallas.

"I like the way he plays," said coach John Fox. "He plays the game aggressively on defense and in the kicking game. I think he's been a spark for us in both areas."

Munnerlyn's quick success with the Panthers mirrors the impact he made as a freshman at South Carolina in 2006, when he excelled defending then-Gamecocks' star receiver Sidney Rice in practice.

"After my first practice, he gave me his number and started texting me," Munnerlyn said of Rice, who's now a starter for the Minnesota Vikings. "He was like, 'I see something in you. You can be good. Stay humble and stay hungry.' "

Munnerlyn said he kept those text messages until his phone broke.

Once he came to Carolina, Smith gave him similar encouragement, which Munnerlyn embraced with almost childlike excitement.

"I was like, 'This is Steve Smith! It's the NFL! This is like a dream come true!' " said Munnerlyn.

Tragic beginnings

Munnerlyn's early years were full of challenges.

He was born three months premature, weighing 3 pounds and 8 ounces. His mother, Evenlyn Munnerlyn, named him Captain, after his great-grandfather, at her mother's request.

The family lived in Happy Hills, one of the most crime-infested housing projects in Mobile, Ala.

Captain's two older brothers began selling drugs in their early teens. Captain's father was murdered.

His mother said she struggled with personal mistakes and the difficulty of raising four children.

In March 1996, when Captain was in the second grade, more tragedy struck. His brothers, Timothy Moore, who was 20 at the time, and Gregory Moore, who was 17, sought retaliation against a young man who had robbed them.

Timothy fired a shot from a car and missed his target but killed an innocent bystander, resulting in charges against both brothers.

Gregory was acquitted but Timothy was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He's been in jail ever since.

Family members say the event led to positive changes in their lives, starting most dramatically with Evelyn.

"I knew I had to change my life in order for my kids to have a better life," she said.

Evelyn, 50, said she turned to the Christian faith shortly after the shooting and that all three of her sons and her daughter eventually did the same.

She said she began praying that Captain wouldn't get in trouble like his brothers had.

Munnerlyn said his mother moved him to a different neighborhood and started taking him to Wednesday night and Sunday morning services at Mount Hebron Baptist Church in Mobile, Ala.

Once, she asked the congregation to pray that he would break the family pattern of becoming a teenage parent, which happened to her and her three oldest children.

He's 21 now and says he has no children.

"It's a great feeling to see my mom happy," he said.

Munnerlyn's brother, Gregory, who lives now in Birmingham, Ala., said his family deeply regrets the shooting, but the good that came from it helped keep Captain out of trouble.

"All of us have been changed," said Gregory, who has participated in prison ministry efforts alongside the uncle of the young man killed in the shooting.

Munnerlyn's early success with the Panthers is a source of joy for his family members in Alabama. He said he keeps in regular contact with them, including almost daily telephone conversations with his brother Timothy in prison.

Munnerlyn's arms and chest are covered with tattoos, including a Bible verse and a picture of his mother's face on his left biceps. Her name, surrounded with angels' wings, is tattooed to his left shoulder.

"My mama means the world to me," he said. "Without her prayers, I don't think I could be here right now."

Off to the Carolinas

Munnerlyn played wide receiver for the Murphy High Panthers in Mobile as a sophomore, but was moved to defensive back as a junior, partly because new coach Ronn Lee thought he might have a future at the position in college.

Less than two years later, Munnerlyn received a scholarship from South Carolina despite missing most of his senior high school season with a broken arm.

With the Gamecocks, Munnerlyn made first-team All-SEC as a sophomore. He surprised his coaches by deciding to turn pro after his junior season. Coach Steve Spurrier said Munnerlyn was making a mistake and might not be drafted high.

Munnerlyn trained before the draft, along with other prospects, with former All-Pro Deion Sanders at a camp in Dallas.

Munnerlyn also appreciated phone calls of support he received prior to the draft from Hall of Famer Darrell Green, a 5-9 former Washington Redskins cornerback.

Panthers officials say they're not sure why Munnerlyn wasn't picked earlier, but were glad to get him with their final selection, 216th overall.

"We thought he was very talented and competitive," said general manager Marty Hurney. "From the first day he came, he's shown confidence."

Munnerlyn said he was motivated by being drafted so late.

"I felt like it happened for a light to turn on in my head," he said. "I always work hard when I'm on the field, but me knowing I went in the seventh round, I had a little chip on my shoulder. I had to show my coaches I could play football and make this team."

Late in last week's 28-20 loss at Atlanta, Munnerlyn stepped in front of Falcons' receiver Michael Jenkins to deflect a third-and-9 pass from quarterback Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter and forcing a punt.

The play was a glimpse of the potential Panthers' veteran players say they see in Munnerlyn.

"He's the type of corner we need around here," said Wesley.

"Once he gets in his comfort zone, I expect him to be a big contributor," said linebacker Jon Beason.

Munnerlyn is dreaming big, too.

"I want to be the best 5-8 corner to ever play the game," he said.