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Scaling the rookie wall

!CHARLOTTE - After Panthers rookie defensive tackle Sione Fua played his 12th game as a senior at Stanford, Fua didn't play again for five weeks.

This year, he'll have to settle for a long weekend.

"In college, we'd be getting ready for the bowl game now," Fua said. "We've already played eight games plus four in the preseason, so it's kind of been a long road so far. The bye week coming when it does is pivotal."

Fua and his teammates will get four days off beginning Thursday, a much-needed break especially for rookies like himself. Some have now played as many games as they played in an entire college season, but with the NFL schedule they still have eight games remaining.

The rookie wall is staring them in the face, but the coaching staff is determined to get help them climb over it.

"A great example is Sione Fua. That young man has taken a lot of snaps," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "All the way back to training camp, I don't think he's missed a practice, a rep. He's taken on a lot, and he's one of the guys that you notice looking a little heavy-legged, a little lethargic.

"I think this week is really good for a kid like him to get revitalized and reset himself. We've got to be smart with him, too. We've got to start limiting his practice reps as well, because he's an important part of what we want to do now and what we want to do in the future."

Rivera took the first steps a couple of weeks ago, when he began giving veteran defensive tackle Ronald Fields more snaps in place of either Fua or fellow rookie starter Terrell McClain. Last week, the Panthers added second-year defensive tackle Andre Neblett to the rotation.

"We've played a lot of games, so we're trying to keep guys fresh," Fua said. "We have a lot of guys that are able to play at a high level, so why not play them? We've got a good rotation going.

"When you're out there every other series, you feel fresh. You feel like you can go 100 percent and really take it to the other team."

This time last season, second-year defensive end Greg Hardy went through much the same thing.


Already playing significant snaps on defense, his special teams duties increased when he was asked to play gunner on the punt coverage team – rarely a responsibility for defensive ends.

This season, Hardy is feeling fresher despite seeing more time on defense. However, he doesn't chalk it all up to a decrease in special teams duties or to the fact that he previously dealt with the rookie wall.

"I feel like with the new CBA, there's not as much of a grind out on the practice field," said Hardy, referring to portions of the Collective Bargaining Agreement that have eased the practice schedule in the name of player safety. "There's a lot more learning. It's not just about staying in shape.

"Outside of the nicks and bruises, I most definitely feel like it's going a lot smoother."

Hardy was among about 10 regular contributors who took it easy in practice Tuesday. That opened the door for another group of rookies who haven't hit the wall or much of anything.

"For those rookies who have played a lot, they'll get a little break," Rivera said. "Then for those rookies who haven't gotten a lot of work, they'll get a lot of work these two days."

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