Dan the man in the middle

CHARLOTTE – It's never easy to open the NFL season on the road, much less to make your first career start away from friendly confines.

Even so, Panthers linebacker Dan Connor made himself at home.

Connor made his first NFL start last Sunday at the New York Giants and did so at his natural middle linebacker spot, responding with a game-high 13 tackles.

And even though the game was played more than 600 miles away from Charlotte, the locale actually worked in the favor of the Pennsylvania native.

"It was real exciting," Connor said. "With it being up in the northeast area, my parents drove up, and my brother and his wife came up. All my buddies were able to see the game at home on TV. That was a pretty cool way to start it."

This Sunday, Connor will seek the one missing element from the day – a victory – when the Panthers welcome NFC South rival Tampa Bay to Bank of America Stadium.

"It was a tough one last week, but I think we should be able to learn a lot from it," Connor said. "You can't be too sad from it, let it get to your head. You've got to have thick skin in this game."

Even though Connor, a third-year pro out of Penn State, made his first start away from home, it still marked a return to his football roots.

Connor was a tackling machine at middle linebacker for the Nittany Lions. In nearly half his career games, he recorded double-digit tackle totals, racking up a school record 419 stops that helped him twice earn first-team All-America honors.

The Panthers took notice and couldn't pass on Connor when he was still sitting there in the third round of the 2008 draft.

One potential complication: The Panthers already had Jon Beason manning the middle.

While Connor missed most of his rookie season following a knee injury, Beason racked up more than 150 tackles for the second consecutive year. In 2009, Beason made it three in a row and made the Pro Bowl for the second consecutive year. Connor saw some time at strongside linebacker in addition to lots of special teams work.

Connor thought he'd be in the running for a bigger role – possibly the starter's role – on the strong side this season, but when weakside starter Thomas Davis suffered a second major knee injury over the summer, the Panthers mixed things up.

They moved Beason to the weak side, gave veteran James Anderson the nod on the strong side, and moved Connor to the middle.

"I've gone back to a position that I feel comfortable with," Connor said. "I feel like that's my natural position.

"It kind of clicked. As soon as I got a couple weeks of camp under my belt, I started to feel real comfortable."

From Beason's vantage, Connor certainly seems to be in his comfort zone.

"I'm overly impressed with him," Beason said. "I think he's a very sharp young man, and he's hard-nosed and tough."

While Connor got his first NFL start at a familiar position, Beason opened the season at a position he hadn't played since his rookie season. Still, Beason recorded 10 tackles against the Giants, second only to Connor. Anderson added nine tackles.

"It's not that new for me. It's more new for Jon, and watching the tape, Jon had an unbelievable game," Connor said. "He really used his playmaking ability. It suits him well. He was lighting people up and playing fast."

Connor may feel at home in the middle, but the transition from college football to the NFL rarely is a seamless one.

With 20 NFL games and now one start to his credit, Connor's still learning, but opposing teams are learning that they better pay attention to him.

"There's so much more thinking on the NFL level," Connor said. "In college, it was making the calls, lining up and then doing whatever you could to make the play. Here there's a lot more that goes into it – how to fit properly and some technique things that take a little time to get used to -- but as far as the basics, it's similar.

"For me, that's kind of my comfort position."

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