CHARLOTTE – Throughout training camp, the Panthers took a long look at rookie Bene Benwikere and relocated veteran Charles Godfrey as options to fill their nickel cornerback role.
But after splitting reps for much of the preseason, Benwikere and Godfrey found themselves sharing reps in the regular season opener.
"You just never know," Godfrey said. "I'm that guy who you just never know where I'll end up. That's good."
While Benwikere held down nickel duties in the Panthers' season-opening victory at Tampa Bay, Godfrey returned to the safety position he had held down since his rookie season in 2008. He actually shared the spot with offseason acquisition Roman Harper, who recorded an interception in his Panthers debut.
"We had certain situations for each of them," head coach Ron Rivera explained. "Charles was going to go in and play certain nickel situations, and Roman was going to play most of our base and certain running situations."
The Panthers initially moved Godfrey, who missed the final 14 games of 2013 with an Achilles injury, to cornerback because of the depth at safety. In addition to the offseason acquisitions of Harper and Thomas DeCoud – who both started against the Buccaneers – the Panthers drafted Tre Boston in the fourth round and already had special teams stalwart Colin Jones.
But Boston missed virtually all of the preseason with a groin injury, and injury and inconsistency limited the role of 2013 contributor Robert Lester, now on the practice squad. With Harper also missing most of the preseason with turf toe, the Panthers put Godfrey back in the mix at safety.
"Some of the things that Charles learned this past training camp playing nickel helped," Rivera said. "It has helped his game, and to continue to train like that is going to be beneficial to his game."
Rivera said that Godfrey is now a "corner/nickel/safety."
"It's fun, and it keeps you busy. I'm not the type that wants to get complacent," said Godfrey, who was happy to be playing in a regular season game for the first time in a year regardless of his role. "I do enjoy it. Anytime I'm on the field, I'm enjoying it. Anytime I'm playing this game, I enjoy it.
"If they need me to stick at one spot, I'm willing to do that, but obviously right now they need me at multiple positions."
The Panthers felt they could afford to move Godfrey around because of what they had seen from Benwikere, their 2014 fifth-round draft pick. Benwikere admitted to a touch of nerves in the early going of his NFL debut, but he was the picture of calm in the closing minutes when he secured a fumble that was bouncing toward the sideline to seal the victory.
"I was a little nervous coming into the stadium and just looking around the stadium, looking at the fans and then first taking the field," Benwikere said. "But all that went away at the snap. As soon as I got in my first couple of plays and my first tackle, it was just back to being a football player again.
"Even though it was my first NFL game, I've been playing football my whole life. I enjoyed every moment of it."
The Panthers were surprised that Benwikere lasted as long as he did in the draft, so surprised in fact that they traded up to take him. Rivera speculated that Benwikere's 40 time of 4.63 at the NFL Combine kept him on the board, but the Panthers saw beyond that.
"Sometimes we get caught up in those numbers," Rivera said. "When we drafted Bene, (secondary coach) Steve Wilks and I talked about him reminding us of two guys: Nathan Vasher, who played with great vision and great ball skills, and Ronde Barber, who has a great knack for playing the middle. That's what we've seen with Bene."
Despite the flattering comparisons and strong start, Benwikere - who tied a school record at San Jose State with 14 career interceptions – is just beginning the learn the NFL game.
Who better to learn from than Godfrey, once his competition for playing time and now his comrade in the defensive huddle?
"Even during the preseason battle if you want to call it that, Charles was always coaching me, always talking to me and helping me understand things," Benwikere said. "Since we already had that bond, when we got out there, we were used to communicating, to talking to one another.
"That helps make us a great duo."