CHARLOTTE – With a year under their belts, just about everything feels more comfortable for defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short.
"I feel at home," Lotulelei said after a recent organized team activity. "It doesn't feel like I'm coming out stressed and worried what will happen if I mess up. The comfort level has definitely gotten a lot better after spending a season with the vets in our room."
Said Short: "I've done it once, so I'm not just going through the motions. I know what to expect, and now I'm trying to show these young guys what to do."
It's nice not being the "young guys" anymore, but Lotulelei and Short, 24 and 25 respectively, aren't veterans just yet.
"I still feel like a young guy," Lotulelei said with a wide smile. "But when I see (2014 second-round defensive end) Kony Ealy, it reminds me of what we went through last season."
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Lotulelei and Short experienced what most rookies go through: ups and downs. Fortunately for the Panthers, there were considerably more ups.
Lotulelei – the 14th overall pick in 2013 – started all 16 games and recorded 47 tackles and three sacks. Short – the 44th overall pick – played in all 16 games and posted 33 tackles and 1.5 sacks. The statistics don't jump off the screen, but Lotulelei and Short fortified the interior of the defensive line, helping propel Carolina to No.2 in total defense.
That said, these defensive tackles are far from finished products.
"I'd love to see them take another step," head coach Ron Rivera said. "They both had their moments last year where they both kind of petered out. Everybody talks about rookie walls, and I do agree. I thought K.K. started slow, but I expect him to start fast this year and maintain. I expect Star to pick up right where he was and not have a lull.
"I love consistency, and I'd like to see them continue to be consistent for us and even take it to the next level."
Consistency is what's required to reach that next level.
"There's no question – that's a challenge that everybody has. It's not just a rookie thing," defensive line coach Eric Washington said. "We want to be as consistent as possible. When you start in the NFL it's a tremendous leap, especially up front. There are going to be some growing pains, and we expect Star and Kawann not to make some of the same mistakes they made last year."
Washington has noticed Lotulelei and Short's increased comfort level on the practice field, and that's allowed them to play faster.
"Now they know what to anticipate," Washington explained. "It's still going to be a fight to do what they need to do, but they can anticipate the tempo and that allows them to play ahead of the play – instead of with or behind the play.
"They are both defensive tackles that we feel great about in all situations. We expect them to grow and improve."