CHARLOTTE — Like all rookies coming into the NFL, Panthers defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon has to adjust to the speed of the game.
But he also has to adjust to the fact he's here now, and suddenly a peer with players he's watched and admired from afar.
"Seeing a lot of people you've watched play, like Shaq Thompson and Christian McCaffrey, guys come in the locker room, your eyes are going to get big," Nixon admitted during rookie minicamp. "These guys are now my family, my brothers. I can't be like the cheerleader on the sideline screaming, 'Oh, that's Shaq Thompson,' you've got to be focused on the game. These vets aren't trying to lose their spots to any rookie, so you've got to have your head in the game just like theirs is."
Nixon talked a lot about the mental aspect of the game, which is very different. While the rookies were surrounded by a smaller group of teammates (34) during last weekend's minicamp, it gave them a chance to ease into the process of learning what the Panthers expect.
Still, in such a controlled setting, the Iowa defensive tackle could tell things were different here.
"Up here, practice is 10 times faster, 10 times harder, you have to be on the go non-stop," he said. "It's definitely a change of pace and a change in reality for me."
The physical component is just one part of the adjustment for Nixon, and he said he's working to make sure he's approaching the work the right way.
"The expectation on me right now is to learn the system as fast as I can and the best I can to retain everything, and not have to think about things while I'm practicing and playing," he said. "It's just a mindset. If you have the mindset that you can go out every day and do what you're asked to do and get one percent better, like coach tells us, then your mindset is perfect, and you can put yourself to anything.
"I would say coming into the league, you have to have the mindset of no matter how hard practice gets, or how rough life gets for you when you get here, you have to have the mindset that anything's possible and just go do it."
Nixon stood out on the Panthers' draft board when they took him in the fifth round, in part because he has the kind of physical traits (including 35 1/2-inch arms) and explosiveness that they look for.
But the Panthers also entered the offseason looking for depth at the position.
After cutting veteran Kawann Short, they were looking for a young player who projects as the "three-technique" or interior pass-rushing defensive tackle. They signed veteran DaQuan Jones to start next to Derrick Brown, but hope that Nixon can become a reliable part of the rotation sooner rather than later.
"He's eager to learn," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said. "You recognize his physical tools. He's got 35-1/2-inch arms. He's explosive, coming out of the blocks. He's got a lot of potential. So we're going to work with him and try to get him to the point where he can provide some depth for us, and then compete to really go play for us. I've been happy with him so far. . .
"He has all the potential to be a really good player in this league, we just have to coach him, and he just has to attack that process, and just become a smart, reliable football player, because he has all the physical tools."
The Panthers have adjusted Nixon's stance to try to take advantage of his quickness, and he said he sees some similarities to what he did in college, but the terminology is part of what he has to learn as he adjusts.
While they're weeks away from putting on pads and actually having contact, Nixon smiled when asked about going up against some of the larger blockers they've brought in.
"I'm hoping it's going to be a lot of fun," he said. "Looking across, you really don't look at size, you just kind of look into their eyes and try to put fear into their heart. You're big, they're big. A lot of offensive linemen are bigger than defensive linemen, but you've still got to go out there and work.
"Watch (Rams defensive tackle) Aaron Donald play every snap of the game. He's not the biggest guy out there, or at least the tallest, but he still goes out there and produces no matter what."
But for now, Nixon's challenge is just to absorb as much as he can, knowing things will get faster and more demanding as more players arrive for OTAs and their mandatory minicamp and the real work begins.
"Just really the one thing I'm trying to get is to know the plays without having to think about them and second guess myself," he said. "I don't want to have to go back and keep asking coach questions. When you get to a certain point in college, you don't have to think about plays; you just have to execute it. That's mainly what I'm looking for out of this camp."
View photos from Carolina's first minicamp practice with the rookies on Friday.