CHARLOTTE – Kelvin Benjamin's first regular season game is in his home state against the team he grew up rooting for. And after an impressive preseason, expectations have soared for Carolina's 2014 first-round draft choice.
You might expect him to be a little nervous for the first game that counts. But when asked, Benjamin laughed and smiled.
"I'm just having fun, man. I'm not nervous at all," said Benjamin, who led the Panthers with 12 catches for 193 yards and one touchdown in the preseason. "I've been playing football for a long time. I go out there, show my game and just have fun with it.
"I'm always in a good mood on the field. It's football. Not many people get to say they play the game."
Perhaps that's why he's adjusted to the NFL so well so quickly. Not once has Benjamin seemed overwhelmed.
"I just want to help the team in any way," Benjamin said. "Make plays."
FOCUS UP FRONT: Running the football with sustained success helped the Panthers rattle off wins last season, gaining more than 100 yards in 14 of 16 games, and they hope the ground game will get them off to a strong start in 2014.
"Try to run early," left tackle Byron Bell said. "We have three of the best running backs in the National Football League. Pick who you want to give the ball, and we have to make it happen."
Said running back Jonathan Stewart, who is set to play in his first regular season game since Week 14 of last season: "Setting the tone early on offense and defense at the line of scrimmage is pretty key, especially at the beginning of the season."
Bell, who was reminded of the 2012 season opener in Tampa Bay when the Panthers mustered just 10 rushing yards against the Buccaneers, acknowledges he and his fellow-lineman are being counted on to get Carolina's offense in gear.
"We didn't run the ball effectively (that day), and the challenge is set," Bell said. "Coach (Ron Rivera) has put it on our backs. Right now we are getting reminded of it, and I'm pretty sure we are going to get reminded of it again."
DECOUD BRACING FOR TALL TASK: In Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans, Tampa Bay has one of the tallest wide receiver tandems in the NFL. Both are 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds. In addition, rookie tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins checks in at 6-foot-5 and 262 pounds.
The measurables alone make for a big challenge.
"They've got some guys that give them big targets down the field, and we just have to be tight with our coverage and be able to play the ball in the air," safety Thomas DeCoud said. "All those guys are good at shielding the defender, so we just have to find ways around their big bodies to make plays on the ball."