Panthers ready to rally around Taylor Heinicke

Taylor Heinicke celebrates

CHARLOTTE – With Cam Newton nursing his sore throwing shoulder throughout recent weeks in practice, understudy Taylor Heinicke has gotten plenty of first-team reps.

Weekday reps are one thing. Weekend reps are another.

But Heinicke's teammates believe he'll be ready.

"I know he's excited for the opportunity, and we're excited to see what he can do," said center Ryan Kalil, the man who will snap the ball to Heinicke for his first NFL start Sunday against the Falcons. "I haven't had a lot of experience playing with him, and most of the reps I've taken with him have been in practice. But from what I've seen this year, I think he's very talented. He's a very sharp, detailed kid."

While Kalil is still developing a comfort level with Heinicke, one of his receivers knows his game very well. Heinicke and Jarius Wright were teammates with the Vikings from April of 2015 when Minnesota signed the undrafted rookie until August of 2017 when the Vikings waived him.

"I've known him for years, and regardless of what team we were on we've remained friends," Wright said. "I'm happy for him to get this opportunity. I think he'll show what kind of player he is."

And what kind of player is Heinicke?

"He's extremely talented," running back Christian McCaffrey said. "He's got a heck of an arm.

"We're extremely excited. And I'll look a little bit taller in the backfield now."

Not that many people are familiar with the 6-foot-1 quarterback's game because he's been a little used backup in the NFL and because he played for a little known college program. Old Dominion was a Football Championship Subdivision program when Heinicke arrived at the Virginia school in 2011. Starting for the Monarchs their last two years on the FCS level and their first two years in the Football Bowl Subdivision, Heinicke racked up 132 passing touchdowns while also running for 22 touchdowns.

"Taylor is a good quarterback. It's just that a lot of people haven't had a chance to see him play," Wright said. "I'm expecting him to go out there and play lights out."

Head coach Ron Rivera said he believes the extra first-team reps Heinicke has gotten in practice will pay dividends. Heinicke played well in the preseason, beating out Garrett Gilbert for the second-string gig by completing 24-of-36 passes for 323 yards with two passing touchdowns, one rushing touchdown and one interception.

"He's somebody who knows our offense very well," Kalil said. "There's no doubt in my mind that he'll be ready to play."