CHARLOTTE – Just once in seven productive seasons with the Panthers has running back Jonathan Stewart started even half of the games.
This year, as the unquestioned starter from the beginning, Stewart knows he'll be counted on more than ever.
"My whole thing this offseason has been to stay healthy, to find ways to prolong my season," Stewart said. "We went through preseason getting ready for this moment, all the way back to the draft, for Week 1 and the chance to showcase our talent."
Stewart has the best opportunity yet to showcase his talent this season, beginning with Sunday's opener at Jacksonville. A first-round draft choice in 2008, Stewart has played a major role in the offense every year but has done so in conjunction with 2006 first-round pick DeAngelo Williams.
Williams is now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, opening the door for Stewart to be the bell cow. He certainly was late last season, when an injury to Williams opened the door for Stewart to rank second in the NFL over the final five games with 486 rushing yards.
"And at the end of the season last year, things shifted with injuries and things like that," Stewart said. "Opportunity came, and you've got to take advantage of it. You can only take advantage of it if you're ready, so that's how I prepare.
"I'm very comfortable. Every year I train and practice to be a starter because you never know when you'll be called on."
Stewart has endured his share of injuries, missing at least three games each of the last three seasons. He obviously doesn't want that trend to continue, but he's confident in the backs behind him and in the offensive linemen in front of him.
"It means the world knowing where the holes are going to be," Stewart said. "It allows you to gel with your offensive line, which is what we did throughout the offseason."
PLAYING SKIP: Stewart has known the Jaguars' new running backs coach for a long time – but not nearly as long as the Panthers' running backs coach has known him.
The Jaguars' backs are coached by Kelly Skipper, the son of Panthers running backs coach Jim Skipper.
"I know him because he recruited me when he was at Washington State," Stewart said of Kelly Skipper. "I know some of the Skip offspring."
Stewart also knows that Jim Skipper surely is excited about coaching opposite his son, though it hasn't come up this week.
"He hasn't said anything about it," Stewart said. "I'm sure somewhere in his mind it's a cool deal, but we're about trying to win."
The Skippers have faced off before. In 2008, Kelly Skipper was tight ends coach for the Oakland Raiders when his father's Panthers beat them 17-6. Jim Skipper was Carolina's running backs coach from 2002-10 under head coach John Fox and rejoined the Panthers in 2013.
READY TO "ROLE": When the Panthers' offense isn't feeding Stewart the ball, it will look to a group of receivers trying to shuffle roles after losing Kelvin Benjamin to a season-ending knee injury.
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula likes the group's ability to deal with new and more demanding roles.
"I think they're ready to go. They've put in hard work," Shula said. "These guys know multiple positions. (Wide receivers coach) Ricky (Proehl) does a good job of mixing them all and making sure they all know different positions."
Shula likes the speed that projected starters Ted Ginn, Jr., and Philly Brown bring to the table, and he's encouraged by recent strides made by rookie Devin Funchess.
"Funchess keeps improving," Shula said. "At the end of the year with the way Philly progressed, we think he'll pick up where he left off, and then having Ted back is a bonus."