CHARLOTTE – No one could question Andre Smith's toughness after he racked up 113 tackles for the University of North Carolina in 2016 with a torn pectoral.
His latest injury, however, will test his toughness in a different way.
Smith, a rookie linebacker who got off to a torrid start for the Tar Heels in 2017 before a knee injury ended his season in the second game, has been out of action since his second play of the preseason.
But Smith, who strained his hamstring covering a kickoff in the preseason opener against the Bills, returned to practice Monday and expects to be ready for the preseason finale Thursday at the Steelers.
Given what's on the line, he better be.
"I've got an opportunity – I've got this one – so I've got to make the most of it," Smith said. "I feel like I was climbing, and then the injury happened. I'm kind of back to Square One, but this game coming up against Pittsburgh, it's going to be the young guys playing the majority of it, so that's my opportunity."
Smith, selected in the seventh round of the draft by the Panthers, had impressed before the injury bug hit again. Fellow rookie linebacker Jermaine Carter – a fifth-round selection – has continued to impress in Smith's absence as a complement to an extremely deep position group.
"If you look at the back part of each position grouping, there are two or three guys that deserve an opportunity," head coach Ron Rivera said with roster cuts lurking after the Steelers game. "Linebacker is one of those positions that is really, truly stacked.
"A very good week to get back because we need to see him play. We need to see what we have and potentially whether he fits or not."
There could be room for Smith, whom Rivera called a "very athletic, physical football player" and a guy that appears built to be successful on special teams. He was a starter on the punt and kickoff coverage and return teams prior to the injury and expects to start in those same sets against the Steelers, when most front-line players are expected to sit.
"We have a lot of linebackers that can play, that have experience, so special teams is where I've got to make my money," Smith said. "If that's how I can help this team win, I'll go down there and give Super Bowl effort every time."
Smith is hopeful his injury woes are behind him. He had to push himself to be ready for the draft and suffered a hamstring injury at the NFL Combine, then he pushed it again to get ready for his pro day a couple of weeks later.
"It never got to fully heal," Smith said. "I knew it eventually would go - I just didn't think it would be that day.
"My first play I actually got in on the tackle. But then my next play the hamstring just said, 'Nah, bro. That's a wrap.'"
The silver lining was that given his recent history of injuries, he knew how to best handle his time out and is now back and ready to tackle anything.
"I got a little jealous watching them fly around making plays while I was on the sideline," Smith said. "But it's not the worst thing that's happened to me, so I've handled it pretty good.
"I've just tried to stay positive, tried to stay engaged and locked in watching film, in the meeting room, off the field. I just tried to be a good teammate."
View photos from the Panthers' Monday practice from the fourth week of preseason.