SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Since his season came to a screeching halt late in the regular season when he suffered a broken fibula, cornerback Bene Benwikere has been tirelessly working to return to the practice field with his teammates.
"It's been a process," Benwikere said upon his return this week. "I'm just happy to be back."
But, the question is, what will his role be now that he's back?
"I'm not sure," Benwikere said. "I'm continuing like I did the first two years – making sure I understand everything."
With the wholesale changes in the Panthers' secondary this offseason, it initially seemed like a foregone conclusion that Benwikere would start at outside corner – or "every-down" as he calls it – upon his return.
But then the Panthers selected three cornerbacks in the draft, presumably to compete for playing time complementing Benwikere on the outside. Then the Panthers released offseason signing Brandon Boykin, who presumably was brought in to play nickel corner.
Then throughout the offseason, while Benwikere slowly rehabbed, the three rookies filled all three starting spots at practice – an approach that has continued at training camp.
Where does that leave Benwikere, who has starting experience on the outside and at nickel?
"Coming off the injury, I'm focusing on rehab, but I'm also getting mentally prepared (to play) and not just say, 'Oh, there's two rookies that we drafted. I'm not going to play,'" Benwikere said. "They still have to learn. They're asking me a lot of questions, I need to answer them and be there for them.
"It's been an interesting process, but I'm thinking of it as fun and a new challenge."
Many believe Benwikere will now return to the nickel spot where he started out at each of his first two NFL seasons. Rookie Zack Sanchez has done well in that role, but it's a position he didn't play on the college level.
Benwikere is working predominantly at nickel right now, but he says that's to get refreshed on the nuances of the position. He said he hasn't yet been told what his role will be, and that makes sense because the coaches probably don't yet know what his role will be. How can the coaches really define Benwikere's role when they haven't yet seem him play at full speed alongside their other options?
"Right now, given my rehab, I have to kind of take it slow, and at the same time we need the rookies out there because we're going to need them all at some point," Benwikere said. "The coaches understand that I know the prep and how things will go from week to week, so I don't think they're really worried about me when it comes to corner. They just want to make sure I get things down at nickel."
Given his druthers, where would Benwikere want to line up?
"Of course I'd prefer to play every down," he said. "Since I've been here, I've kind of flip-flopped back and forth – started at nickel, then was every-down and rotating into nickel, then come back the next season as starting nickel and toward the end of the season back to every-down.
"I definitely want to be every-down, but the team has their own plans, and that's how we're going to go."
View photos from Carolina's sixth training camp practice.