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Carolina Panthers

PJ Walker getting used to his new normal

PJ Walker

CHARLOTTE — In case you haven't noticed, Panthers interim coach Steve Wilks is fairly direct.

So even though the opening week starter (Baker Mayfield) is back on the practice field and looking ready to return, Wilks has made it clear the plan is to continue to go with the hot hand at quarterback (PJ Walker) for Sunday's game with Atlanta.

And while the dynamics of the quarterback room can often be complicated, Wilks made it sound very matter-of-fact when asked how he managed the situation. He said rather than meeting with each guy individually, he goes through the game plan along with all of the quarterbacks (including Sam Darnold), along with offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo and quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan together.

"I'm not going to go into details on the conversations," Wilks said. "Each and every week, I meet with all three of those guys, as well as Ben and Sean, so we're all in the room together. I don't try to talk to each of them separately because I want to make sure we have great communication and clarity on what I'm saying to the group.

"He (Mayfield) understood exactly where we were going this week, and he knows his role, and he was fine with that."

Mayfield wasn't in the locker room when reporters were around Wednesday, nor was he on the injury report after missing the previous two weeks with an ankle injury.

But Darnold, who still has two weeks left in the practice window before he can be activated, said things were exceedingly regular around practices and the meeting rooms. Of course, Darnold maintained all summer it was a "healthy competition" between him and Mayfield, and the energy was always positive, so that's not necessarily a surprise to him.

Asked how Mayfield was handling this week, Darnold replied: "I don't want to speak for Baker in that regard, but for me, it looks like he's handling it really well, and he's got a great positive attitude all the time, so I think he's been handling it good."

Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield

"It's business," Darnold said. "It's us listening to coach Wilks telling us what the deal is this week, and like I said, there's no change in body language, there's no one shaking their head in there, it's always just straight business.

"Whatever the deal is, we understand what it is, and PJ's going out there and playing this week, and we're doing the best we can to help him go out there and play a great game."

Walker has always had a remarkable capacity to normalize things, even though things have seldom been normal for him. He was in Indianapolis when Andrew Luck abruptly retired. He went through the XFL, and then started a single game for his old college coach each of the last two years. This year, he'd have almost certainly been cut after training camp if not for preseason injuries to Matt Corral and Darnold. Last week's win over the Buccaneers marked the first time in his career that he started back-to-back games, and walking into this week being declared the starter after beating some guy named Tom Brady comes with some extra attention.

Whether it was fans asking for pictures on the way into practice, or more interview requests than he normally gets, or becoming a trending topic on social media — "I see it, it is what it is. Always good to have that love," he said — Walker has taken it all in stride.

"It's cool, that was cool," he said of being stopped by a fan on Wednesday. "But we've got to continue to do these things week-in and week-out, and be consistent, and continue to play well, continue to win games, and continue to build this team up and have the confidence that we can play well on Sundays as a group.

"The pictures and everything's cool," Walker said with a grin. "But they don't really matter until you go out and play well on Sundays."

Walker threw two touchdown passes against the Bucs — including a throw to DJ Moore that Wilks pointed to as an example of all 11 players being on the same page. And while he doubled his career touchdown passes in that game (he had two touchdowns and eight interceptions prior to starting against the Rams), Walker has never lacked confidence.

"I never thought that I was not as good as I thought I was," he said. "So for me, you always have to have that confidence and have that swagger to you, to go out there and be able to make those plays. It's nothing new for me, so that's all that matters."

And without any kind of mandates — and when you're in an interim coach situation, there's only today — Walker's kind of built for the current situation.

"I can't because you never know what's going on," he replied when asked if he ever thinks about the future. "One day at a time. I can't see the future. Tomorrow and today is all I can see, and today is all that matters for me."

Jaycee Horn said he's still taking a day-to-day approach to recovery from a rib injury.

He was limited in practice Wednesday after missing the last two games. The Panthers' second-year corner called his rib injury "frustrating" because it requires patience and constant monitoring, which is what he's focused on doing in the lead-up to Atlanta.

"They try to monitor my reps and watch how many I'm taking," Horn said. "When I'm out there competing, it's kind of hard to get me out."

Wilks said he hopes Horn can "get over the hump" against the Falcons this Sunday after making progress throughout last week into Week 8.

— Three players missed practice because of what was described as an illness (right tackle Taylor Moton and defensive linemen Marquis Haynes Sr. and Daviyon Nixon). Wilks said all the COVID tests were negative, and he mostly sent them home to get things from spreading.

The Panthers have veteran tackle Cameron Erving able to fill in on either side, though they're thinner on the defensive line.

Check out the best photos from Wednesday's practice as the Panthers prepare to take on the Falcons this weekend.

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