CHARLOTTE – The Panthers defense has missed rookie Bene Benwikere, the team's starting nickel cornerback who has been out since suffering a high ankle sprain in Week 5.
And the fifth-round draft choice from San Jose State has missed being on the field.
"What makes it tough is getting that prominent role and then having to go through a setback," Benwikere said. "I know I am a rookie, and that's something that can happen when you come into the NFL. But I was able to earn a role in this defense, and then having to watch was tough."
Benwikere's extended time on the sideline ended this week. He was a limited participant in both Wednesday and Thursday's practice and said he felt comfortable despite a long layoff.
"It feels really great to be out there with the guys, go through checks and calls and not be on the side," he said. "I'm smart enough and I watch enough film to feel comfortable out there and provide energy and make all the checks without missing a beat."
Benwikere and the Panthers coaching staff are hopeful he'll be able to play against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
While Benwikere's experience is limited, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott has already seen signs that Benwikere has the ability to succeed at an impact position.
"He's got good upside, a young player with instincts. He's been out awhile now, so it'll be good to get him back," McDermott said. "(The nickel) is a position that, in this defense, in this system, we look to be productive. Bene, we think for a young guy, has a chance to be productive in the years to come."
INJURY UPDATES: Running back DeAngelo Williams has yet to practice this week, but head coach Ron Rivera maintained he's not concerned about Williams' availability for Sunday.
Right tackle Nate Chandler practiced fully after missing Wednesday's session with a toe injury.
"He got a good bit of work today," Rivera said. "He took a lot of reps – a little more than I thought he would. He moved around very well."
LUKE ON PRO BOWL: Luke Kuechly, who leads the NFL in tackles with 105, is the leading vote-getter at linebacker for the 2015 Pro Bowl and has received the third most votes among all defensive players. His reaction upon hearing that news is what you'd expect.
"I just want to win, you guys know that," Kuechly said. "It's cool. It's a fun deal, but I want to win, I want to win, I want to win. Everyone in this locker room is the same way. But you take pride in what you do, and it's cool to see people appreciate you."
LIFE WITHOUT STAR: Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei will miss the first game of his career this week with an ankle injury suffered Monday against the Philadelphia Eagles. The remaining defensive tackles – Kawann Short, Dwan Edwards and Colin Cole – know they need to pick up the slack in his absence.
"The workload is getting heavier, but we had a similar situation last year when Dwan (Edwards) went down early in the season and it was the three of us trying to make it work. We were able to get it done then," Cole said. "Star is not somebody who can be easily replaced – he brings his talents to the table and makes things happen for us – so it's about everybody adding that much more to the game and doing whatever we need to do to pull it out."
RETURN ROTATION: Wide receiver Philly Brown is ready to return to action this week after missing the last three games with a concussion. Prior to being injured, he returned a punt 79 yards for a touchdown versus Chicago in Week 5.
Rivera said Brown and wide receiver Brenton Bersin, who has averaged 6.3 yards on six punt returns and 24.5 yards on six kickoff returns, will both get opportunities in the return game, but Bersin will get the first crack at it.
"We're going to see how it goes, but we'll start off with Brenton," Rivera said.