CHARLOTTE – Just when it looked like the Panthers' offensive line was beginning to sort itself out, the unit took another hit.
After losing right guard Trai Turner to an ankle injury two weeks ago, the already-depleted group suffered another setback this week when rookie left tackle Greg Little reentered the concussion protocol. Little suffered a concussion in the preseason against the Patriots and missed the Panthers first two regular season games, but returned for his first start last week against the Texans. After holding his own against the Texans, it looked like the second-round pick could solidify himself at left tackle, but now his status is uncertain.
With depth becoming an issue in the trenches just four weeks into the season, the loss of Little raises some questions. Sixth-round draft pick Dennis Daley looks poised to step into the hole along the offensive line, but where he'll fit in is yet to be revealed.
Prior to Little's injury, left tackle Daryl Williams had transitioned across the line to right guard. Daley, who has taken reps at both guard and tackle, could either directly replace Little at left tackle, or fill in at right guard should Williams return to the left tackle spot.
Regardless of where Daley aligns, he feels prepared.
"Wherever they put me, I'm ready to go. Step up to the challenge," Daley said. "Pretty confident about it. I feel good."
What would make a rookie feel so comfortable before his first career start? For Daley, it's a combination of his preparation and his coaches and teammates faith in him.
"Dennis has done a nice job, he really has," head coach Ron Rivera said. "He has to work his technique and do the things he needs to do to be successful. It's been a good week so far for him. He's done a really nice job."
Rivera credited the effort of the show team with helping prepare Daley for Sunday, saying they've rotated in defensive starters to ensure the rookie is ready for the speed of live action reps.
Tight end Greg Olsen is confident that Daley, or any new player stepping into a starting role, will be ready to go when their number is called.
"The preparation doesn't just start when it's your time to play," Olsen said. "Those guys have been preparing since they got here. Coach Matsko makes those guys all prepare like they're going to play every week, so that way when you are called up, it's not all of a sudden now you're getting yourself right."
Just because the preparation has remained the same each week doesn't mean this one doesn't feel a little different for Daley. After all, making your first NFL start adds a little pressure.
"I tried to work on more technique and stuff this week," Daley said. "I tried to focus like 10 times harder this week. For the most part, just technique."
But Daley said his teammates have helped him keep a level head and remain confident, particularly right tackle Taylor Moton. Moton's locker is next to Daley's, and before leaving the locker room Thursday, Moton made sure Daley knew he had his stamp of approval.
"Me and Taylor talk every day about everything," Daley said. "He's a great guy, so I just got to learn as much as I can. I feel like he's got confidence in me, so I'll be alright."