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Carolina Panthers

Rookies ready for prime time


BRADENTON, Fla. - Fans feel like they've been waiting forever for the Panthers to kick off the regular season.

Just imagine how the Panthers' rookies feel.

"It will be my first official NFL game, something I've been dreaming about since I was a young boy," rookie defensive end Frank Alexander said. "It's an opportunity to make my dream come true. It's exciting."

The wait for Alexander and the Panthers' other rookies will end Sunday, when Carolina visits the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The large majority of the Panthers' seven rookies seem almost certain to have a notable role in the opener.

First-round pick Luke Kuechly is slated to start at linebacker, second-rounder Amini Silatolu is slated to start at left guard, and sixth-rounder Brad Nortman in slated to start at punter.

Alexander, a fourth-rounder, is in the defensive end rotation, and fellow fourth-rounder Joe Adams is expected to be the Panthers' punt returner. Fifth-rounder Josh Norman should play a prominent role at cornerback, and seventh-rounder D.J. Campbell could be in line for some snaps on special teams.

"I think our young group of guys is really going to be able to help us this season," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said, noting that this rookie class is more prepared than last year's thanks to a full offseason program. "I feel very comfortable with Luke going out there, and Amini. Those guys have gotten a tremendous amount of reps.

"I also like what Josh Norman has been doing for us, and I feel very comfortable with Frank Alexander as well."

While Kuechly, the Panthers' top pick, has made a big splash in the preseason, Silatolu is doing a good job if he goes unnoticed.

The soft-spoken giant held his own during the preseason, with a pair of Pro Bowlers flanking him – center Ryan Kalil to his right and left tackle Jordan Gross to his left.

"They make me feel comfortable every day. Both of them have helped out a lot," Silatolu said. "We're clicking. I'm the young guy, so I'm just trying to pick it up and get on their level.

"I've always pictured this happening, but I never really thought it would happen this fast. But I'm ready to go. I'm a little nervous, but that's part of it."

Gross, who started every game as a rookie nine years ago, started alongside veteran Travelle Wharton each of the past four seasons but has no qualms about starting beside a player fresh out of the Division II ranks.

"We played together so long and that was a tough deal losing Travelle, but Amini has done a great job," Gross said. "He was a clean slate when he came in and didn't really have a great understanding of football and how to play offensive line technically or schematically. He played at a small level his whole life, so he's had a huge jump to make but he's doing great."

Adams made his mark in the preseason opener with an electrifying 34-yard punt return. Sunday, he could possibly be the first Panther to touch the ball in a much anticipated season.

"That would be great," Adams said. "I'm very excited about my first regular season game. I just want to come out and play my best."

That's a goal shared by Alexander, who shared a locker with Adams in the preseason after being selected one pick ahead of him in the draft.

"You have to prepare well. If you don't, you'll go out there and get exposed," Alexander said. "I just want to bring energy to the game and make plays.

"I'm real excited. I've been through the preseason, but it's the real deal now."

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