CHARLOTTE - Officially, linebacker Dan Connor didn't take a snap on defense in last Sunday's season opener at Arizona until Jon Beason suffered what turned out to be a season-ending injury.
Unofficially, Connor played every snap right along with Beason, an approach to preparedness that should serve him well as the Panthers' new starting middle linebacker.
"I was mentally in the game when Jon was in there," Connor said. "Each play on the sidelines I'm watching and making notes in my head. That keeps you playing without actually playing, so when I went in I was clued into what they were doing, how they were attacking us.
"That's something I've learned to do from being in the position I've been in because as soon as you do go in, you could be blindsided. You've got to always stay in the game."
Connor now will be asked to literally stay in the game, with Beason on injured reserve with a torn Achilles tendon. Trying to replace Beason - who has played four NFL seasons and owns the four highest tackle totals in franchise history – is a tall task for even the most prepared replacement.
Fortunately, Connor knowsa thing or two about tackles himself. A third-round pick in 2008 out of Penn State – known as "Linebacker U" – Connor is the school's all-time leading tackler with 419.
"I've known Dan a long time in terms of watching him up at Penn State. He's a very capable linebacker," Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "What happened to Jon is unfortunate, but injuries are a part of the game, and we've got to move forward. The next guy has got to step up.
"We feel good about Dan."
Connor also has a leg up because he played in the middle last season, starting the first eight games with Beason on to the weak side in place of Thomas Davis, who missed the season a knee injury.
Connor responded with 60 tackles, which ranked third on the team when his season also ended prematurely because of a bone chip in his left hip.
"Last year helped a ton with confidence and how I feel," Connor said. "It's tough losing Jon, but by the same token, it's a chance for me to get in there and take on the same role I did last season. It's something I've been prepared for since the beginning of the season, knowing that Jon was having trouble with that early on.
"The reality is that with 16 games and four preseason games, guys go down. Plus it's a tough position, probably the most physical position, so backup linebackers have to be on edge and ready to go."
While only one player at a time can try to fill Beason's sizable shoes, the burden of trying to bring what Beason brought beyond his tackles will fall on multiple players.
Beason was the unquestioned leader of the defense, both spiritually and schematically. Davis might be in the best position to take over as the spiritual leader, while the burden of calling the defense most often will fall to strongside linebacker James Anderson.
"I did it throughout the preseason, when Beason couldn't practice," said Anderson, who more than doubled his career tackle total with 154 in 2010 following four seasons spent mostly as a backup. "It puts me in more of a leadership position. I'll get to take a little bit more command.
"But any time you lose a leader like Jon, it's a major blow. And it's not just him not being on the field; it's his presence in practice and in how we do things. We'll have to have other guys step up and play big."
Davis, back on the field for the first time in nearly two years, believes Connor is ready as he can be for what's to come, beginning with Sunday's home opener against the reigning Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
"It's going to be hard to replace a guy like Beason, but I think Dan Connor is definitely up to the challenge of filling in and doing a great job," Beason said. "He's played for us in the past and has played well, so we're expecting nothing different."