ASHBURN, Va. (AP) Last year Martrell Spaight was so sensitive to light that he darkened his sunglasses with a black marker.
He is set to make his first NFL start for the Washington Redskins under the Monday night spotlight against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. After missing his entire rookie season with concussion problems, Spaight earned the trust of the coaching staff to fill in for Will Compton at middle linebacker.
''He's a young football player still with limited starting reps, but this is a great opportunity for him,'' coach Jay Gruden said Thursday. ''He hasn't had that opportunity other than preseason and a little bit here and there, so I'm excited to see him. I love his energy. I like the way he hits, he hustles and he's good in pass defense.''
Spaight just being on the field is an accomplishment. A fifth-round pick out of Arkansas in 2015, he tried to play through concussion symptoms before Washington placed him on injured reserve and he went to great lengths to get back to normal.
When he couldn't find dark enough sunglasses, Spaight grabbed a sharpie and darkened them so he could go about his rehab. In his bleakest moments of reflection, including the return of symptoms in September, he wondered if this whole football thing was going to work out after all.
''It was very difficult for me mentally because you work so hard and after a while you start questioning yourself, `Is it meant for me to play this game?''' Spaight recalled Friday.
The 23-year-old got his answer last week at Philadelphia when he heard a coach yell out, ''Spaight, get your helmet.'' A knee injury to Compton forced Spaight into the starting middle linebacker role, headset and all, as the captain of the defense, and Gruden was impressed with how he handled those duties.
So impressed that they're all his Monday against Carolina.
''We like his athletic ability,'' Gruden said. ''Mentally, is he as far along as where Comp is? We'll see, but he didn't have any trouble communicating the calls, so I feel very confident in Spaight. I think he's a good linebacker. He's tough, he's physical, and we've just got to make sure health-wise he gets to where he can be productive.''
Spaight has been nursing a shoulder injury himself, but the adrenaline that has him struggling to stay calm now could help him get ready for the Panthers. Spaight has felt his game make ''a heck of a jump'' from a year ago, and he's performing beyond his 12 games of mostly special teams pro experience.
Recognizing that he's still effectively a rookie, defensive coordinator Joe Barry, a former linebackers coach, still sees the ''linebacker intuition'' in Spaight.
''It's hard to teach instincts, it's hard to teach awareness,'' Barry said. ''You can teach a guy how to key better, use his eyes, use his hands, use his feet, break on the ball better, take on blocks. You can coach and teach those things. You can't teach instincts. You can't teach awareness and that's always the toughest thing to evaluate because you really never know if a guy has those instincts and awareness until you're truly around him.''
Being around Spaight is enough to make Compton confident in his understudy. Working under Compton is one reason for Gruden's faith in Spaight, but his game preparation is on another level, too.
''He's always very adamant and humble in his approach to preparing for a game,'' Compton said. ''I have total faith in him. For him it'll just be staying calm, staying focused, just not getting too high in the moment and just playing his game because when he plays he can play.''
After burying his own doubts about his future, Spaight will get the chance to play against a former league MVP in front of a national audience at the center of the defense.
''Just seeing that everything's better than it was, it just opened my eyes and showed that I'm meant to play this game and I feel like this is my calling,'' Spaight said. ''I'm anxious to go out there and show the world what I can get done.''
NOTES: Along with Compton, rookie linebacker Su'a Cravens didn't practice Friday because of an upper-arm/elbow injury. ... Tight end Jordan Reed is progressing from a sprained left shoulder that has limited him. Reed participated in one-on-one drills Friday. ... Left guard Shawn Lauvao (groin) and center Spencer Long (concussion) practiced and could be available to face the Panthers. If they play, Washington would have its entire starting offensive line for the first time since October.
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