CHARLOTTE – This weekend on the practice fields adjacent to Bank of America Stadium, nearly 60 NFL hopefuls are taking incremental steps toward getting used to the speed of the pro game at the Panthers' rookie minicamp.
Running back Kenjon Barner has a different take than most on the adjustment.
"I got my first taste of an NFL practice at the Senior Bowl, and after a play I caught myself running to the huddle and looking to the sideline for the next one. And I was like, 'Whoa. I forgot. I'm not at Oregon,' " Barner said. "It's a lot slower, but it's still challenging."
The pace of Oregon practices was break-neck, but the challenge for Barner, the Panthers' sixth-round draft pick, will amp up when he soon joins Carolina's veterans on the practice field.
Just don't expect him to back down.
"As a competitor, you've got to look forward to any challenge that comes your way," Barner said. "If you don't, you're not a true competitor."
That's not to suggest that Barner believes he'll walk in the door and blow up the Panthers' talented and crowded depth chart at running back. He's a player that understands the persistence and patience it takes to excel, having backed up LaMichael James at Oregon for three seasons before putting up jaw-dropping numbers as the Ducks' lead back his senior year.
Barner piled up nearly half of his 3,623 rushing yards (1,767) and more than half of his 41 rushing touchdowns (21) as a senior, making him a no-brainer pick for the Panthers in the sixth round even with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert on the roster.
"The guy's stats speak for themselves, and he has return ability and is good out of the backfield as a receiver," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "When he was still sitting there, listening to (general manager) Dave (Gettleman) and the scouts talk about the value of the pick, it made perfect sense to me that we took him.
"He's got some quickness, and he's also a very smart young man, a fifth-year senior that graduated. He's shown that he has some ability. He's a guy we'll have to find a spot for. If he continues to grow and improve and flash like he did, he's got a real good chance to help us."
Barner understands that could be on special teams at first, where he was a dangerous return man but also was a competent gunner on the punt coverage team. Or it could be in third-down situations, where his pass-catching ability and sub-4.4 speed could come in handy.
But long term, Barner believes the sky is the limit. Through Oregon's demanding practices as well as the demand he placed on himself, he developed into a back in college capable of doing it all from the first play to the last, as evidenced by his 38-carry, 341-yard performance against Southern California last season.
"The tempo we practiced at prepared me for that," Barner said. "We ran 130, 140, sometimes 150 plays in an hour-and-a-half. Just think of the pace you have to go to accomplish that because in games we ran 80-90 plays. The pace was crazy.
"When they felt like I needed to carry the load, because of the work I put in out of season I was prepared."
Barner said he's never labeled himself, never put himself "in a box." He strives to be a complete back, one that should have been drafted before the sixth round.
"I've got to play with a chip on my shoulder, reminding myself every day that 181 people passed on me. You always want to make people eat their words," Barner said. "It's motivation, the feeling of feeling unwanted. But at the end of the day, I'm here, and I don't worry about the past. I've got to focus on the present and the future."