CHARLOTTE – Since training camp, it's always been "just a matter of time" for rookie wide receiver Curtis Samuel.
His time could be now.
"We feel really good about Curtis getting more opportunities," head coach Ron Rivera said. "We'll see how that works out."
The quick recap of Samuel's rookie season so far: a hamstring injury sidelined the second-rounder for nearly all of training camp, which forced the Panthers to slowly ease him in as the regular season began. He was making steady progress before a setback in Week 4 forced him to miss Carolina's win at New England. He maintained his patience and positive attitude, and eventually got himself right physically.
"During the Philly game," wide receivers coach Lance Taylor said, "he showed us he's back at full speed."
Samuel – who has a modest four receptions for 12 yards and two carries for 39 yards on the season – didn't record a catch during Carolina's Thursday night loss to the Eagles, but he did draw two pass interferences penalties on cornerback Jalen Mills. The first came on a 20-yard post route. The next one came on a play everyone has been waiting to see – Samuel challenging the secondary deep down the field. Quarterback Cam Newton's pass was intercepted by the safety coming to help over the top, but Samuel was pulled by Mills, resulting in a 40-yard penalty.
"He caused some problems with his speed," Taylor said. "It showed that he's getting healthy and he can progress with what we want to do with him.
"His speed is real. He brings an element to our offense that helps all of the other pieces. We're just now getting him healthy to really see that speed and how it can help our offense. It's a great weapon to add to what we already have."
That weapon could help unlock Carolina's run game. Don't forget, Samuel played plenty of running back at Ohio State, so the Panthers could eventually line him up in the backfield. Plus, defenses have recently stacked the box in an effort to shut down the Panthers' more traditional run game, and it's worked. But if a speedster like Samuel can prove to be a legitimate deep threat – a la former Panthers wideout Ted Ginn, Jr. – defenses might have to think twice about bringing a safety down and loading up the box.
"That's one of the things that we are missing, and that's one of the things we're hoping to get from Curtis," Rivera explained. "As Curtis continues to develop in this offense, I think you'll see those things.
"When you look at the last two games we've played, we've faced eight- and nine-man boxes. … If we get Curtis rolling and can continue to have success throwing the ball, I think we'll see things lighten up."
Added Samuel: "Coach feels like I can do that, but I just have to go out there and show the coaches when the chances come."
The chances could increase this week with wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin nursing a knee injury. Benjamin is likely to play after practicing Friday, but regardless it would do the Panthers a world of good to see Samuel use his speed to come down with his first long reception.
"For the offense as a whole, it will be good for him to have that breakthrough moment," Taylor said. "I know it's coming and I know he has that ability. It will help create confidence. Sometimes you can press when you're trying to make that big play and it hasn't come to you yet. But he doesn't lack for confidence or swagger. He believes in himself, as all great playmakers do. In his mind, 'I haven't hit a home run yet, but I will, and I'm going to keep swinging.'"
View photos of the week of practice leading up to the Panthers' game against the Bears.