CHARLOTTE – As a rookie in 2011, Sione Fua started every game at defensive tackle for the Carolina Panthers before a hamstring injury sidelined him for the final five.
Even with that experience, Sunday's starting assignment at the Kansas City Chiefs will feel like a fresh start.
"It's always exciting to have an opportunity to play more, but it's sad that we had to lose Ron," said Fua, who is slated to start after the Panthers placed Ron Edwards on injured reserve Tuesday with an elbow injury. "Ron really wanted to finish the season strong, and he's been a big player for us this year.
"Me and (Andre) Neblett have to step up this week. We can't lose a step. We have to do what we can to help this team get better and win on Sundays."
The Panthers started rookies Fua and Terrell McClain at defensive tackle last season when they were healthy, but this season it's been all about the Edwards duo – Ron and Dwan – from the start.
While the Edwards "brothers" sport two decades of NFL experience between them, Fua and McClain were third-round draft picks enduring on-the-job training in 2011. McClain, the first pick of the third round, was waived when the Panthers signed Dwan Edwards just before the regular season started. But Fua – the last pick of the third round – earned a spot on the roster.
Fua hasn't started a game this season, but he has started to show signs of developing into the player the Panthers had in mind when they drafted him.
"It's been a learning year for me, and having two older guys has really helped a lot," Fua said. "I've talked numerous times with Ron and Dwan, just trying to pick their brains and see what they see out there and ask them about their mentality when attacking guards and centers.
"Now I know what to expect, know what I'll see week to week. Preparing for teams, I understand better how they're going to attack your weaknesses."
Even in a reserve role, Fua has flashed over the last few games.
In Week 9, he recorded four tackles in the Panthers' win at Washington, exceeding the three tackles he had logged in his first five games. In Week 11, the 310-pounder lined up at defensive end for one play when ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnston were temporarily sidelined with injuries. Fua responded by helping Dwan Edwards pressure Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman into a throw that resulted in a pick-six for cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.
Monday at Philadelphia, Fua forced a fumble early in the second half that helped the Panthers preserve the lead in their 30-22 triumph.
Such plays are noteworthy, but they don't tell the whole story.
"Being inside, you get recognized for sacks or tackles, but there are a lot of things that go unnoticed," Fua said. "It's a position where you don't get a lot of recognition, but it's very important to the team. People that know football know whether we're doing our job or not."
And Fua is getting the job done better than the last time he found himself in the starting lineup.
"Last year, I would get tunnel vision. Everything was happening so fast, just flying by me," Fua said. "On the D-line, you're either going to be right really fast or you're going to be wrong really fast. It's such a close fight every play. You're inches away from the O-linemen, so if you take one bad step or have one bad read, you'll get cut down.
"The O-line is going to take you to where the ball is going, so you've got to focus on the guy in front of you and reading his block. I've been doing that better this year, and that's helped me a lot. The game has slowed down for me because of that."