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Rookies take first steps


CHARLOTTE - Friday, the Carolina Panthers' drafted rookies took a break from school and kicked off a three-day weekend at their future home.

In many ways, however, it felt like the first day of school all over again.

"You can't come in thinking you've arrived, because you haven't done anything," linebacker Luke Kuechly, the Panthers' first-round pick, said following the first day of a rookie minicamp at the Bank of America Stadium practice fields.

"When you see things on paper – the playbook and everything – it looks OK, but everything is still. Then you get out here and everybody is moving around. People are trading spots and motioning across, and it gets a little crazy."

Kuechly and more than 50 other prospects went through an orientation of sorts Friday, as did the Panthers coaches. This is the first full offseason under the NFL's new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and this minicamp is a whole new ballgame, with drafted and undrafted rookies joined by 32 tryout players that range from rookies to four-year veterans. The camp also includes a handful of players already on the Panthers' roster with less than a year of NFL experience.

"With the new rules that have come about through the CBA, we're trying to feel our way through it to make sure we do things the right way," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "It was actually pretty good. I was very encouraged. There are a lot of good things that came out from a lot of the young guys that we have out there."

Kuechly, wearing the same No. 59 that Rivera wore during his days as a linebacker for the Chicago Bears, certainly impressed his new coach. Rivera said that Kuechly, who played primarily middle linebacker at Boston College, will start out at weakside linebacker, with Jon Beason remaining the man in the middle.

"We'll start him on the outside and then we'll rotate him inside," Rivera said. "I've talked with Jon about playing inside and outside as well. It's going to be an interesting experiment as we go through this because we want to make sure we put the best unit on the football field and the best combination of players."

While Kuechly does have some experience on the outside, Friday's late-afternoon practice was a new experience for second-round draft pick Amini Silatolu, who will play guard for the first time since high school after playing tackle throughout college.


"It was pretty hard. I've still got a lot of catching up to do," Silatolu said. "I was real nervous coming in, but I learned a lot from Coach (John) Matsko and Coach (Ray) Brown about pass sets and footwork and technique. I've just got to keep getting in shape and keep working at it, just learning the position."

Cornerback Josh Norman, a fifth-round draft pick out of Coastal Carolina, spent portions of his first day as a pro learning an unfamiliar backpedaling technique.

"It was a very fast tempo, and I'm just trying to get used to everything," Norman said. "I was a little cautious. There were some nerves in there as well, just getting used to everything and feeling my way through stuff.

"This is a dream come true, but I haven't had time to think about that."

The good news for the draft picks is that there is time.

They may be fast approaching their final round of final exams back at college, but they're just starting their first semester at the school of hard knocks that is the NFL.

"It's only the beginning," Silatolu said. "I've still got all spring and summer."

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