Bené Benwikere wasted no time Tuesday living up to his “Big Play” nickname.
The Carolina Panthers’ second-year cornerback, who sat out most of organized team activities with a hamstring injury, intercepted a Cam Newton pass on the opening play of team drills to provide the highlight on the first day of the mandatory, three-day minicamp.
Benwikere wants to make sure he’s known for those types of plays rather than someone who can’t stay healthy: The fifth-round pick from San Jose State missed six games with a high ankle sprain as a rookie before tweaking his hamstring last month.
He reminded coaches and teammates Tuesday of his knack for finding the ball.
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“That’s always going to be me. I always pride myself in trying to make a big play,” he said. “Just have to be out there on the field more to kind of let that be known and let it fall into place.”
Benwikere missed the first two weeks of OTAs and took only a couple of consecutive snaps last week during 11-on-11 work.
But he was lined up at nickel for the start of team drills Tuesday when the offense lined up in what Benwikere called a “freaky formation.” Benwikere and strong safety Roman Harper decided Harper would take the tight end, and Benwikere would cover the flat.
But with the running back flaring out behind the line of scrimmage, Benwikere dropped a little deeper toward wideout Kelvin Benjamin, who ran an out route.
Newton never saw the defender.
Benwikere leaped to snare the ball, fell to the ground, then hopped up and started running toward the end zone. He seemed incredulous when asked whether he would have scored in an actual game.
“Yeah, that’s why we’ve got to get up and go,” he said. “We always preach scoring.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said it was hard to fault Newton for making a bad read, adding it was more a case of Benwikere making a play.
“He did a nice read, did great technique, hinged into his drop and was right in the throwing lane,” Rivera said. “Cam put a good ball up there; Bene just went up and made a play.”
Benwikere’s ball skills were what helped convince the Panthers to trade up to draft him with the 148th overall pick in 2014. Benwikere, who grew up in southern California, tied a San Jose State record with 14 career interceptions, four of which came during a four-game span his senior year.
In his first NFL game, Benwikere recovered a fumble by Tampa Bay’s Bobby Rainey with 1:27 left to seal a Week 1 victory.
But Benwikere’s rookie season was interrupted by the ankle injury he sustained on an extra point against Chicago in Week 5. The Panthers didn’t win a game while Benwikere was out, a winless streak that eventually reached seven games and prompted the coaches and front office to go with a youth movement.
Veteran Antoine Cason was out at corner; Benwikere was in.
“It was a lot of bullets coming at me faster,” he said.
But Benwikere picked one of them off in victimizing Saints quarterback Drew Brees for Benwikere’s first career interception – a tone-setting play in a game that halted the losing skid and started a four-game winning streak that pushed the Panthers into the playoffs.
The Panthers’ postseason ended with a loss to Seattle in the divisional round, when Benwikere and fellow rookie defensive back Tre Boston were beaten for touchdowns.
But Benwikere believes he proved he be could be successful as an every-down corner, not just a nickel.
“That’s what training camp and minicamp and OTAs are for,” he said. “I’m going out there with the intentions every day to go and practice the outside corner and rotate inside (to nickel) when they bring in somebody to play corner.”
Rivera said Benwikere’s field vision and football IQ make him a good fit in the slot. And although the 5-foot-11 Benwikere is not as tall as first-team corners Josh Norman (6-0) or Charles Tillman (6-2), Rivera says he plays tall.
“Would I like to have him be a 6-2 guy or 6-1 like Josh? Yes,” Rivera said. “But because he plays long – he’s got great leaping ability and long arms – I think he makes up for it.”
Benwikere says adding the veteran Tillman to the corner mix has improved the secondary’s communication.
And Tillman has been impressed with Benwikere in the brief time they’ve been together. Tuesday was no exception.
“I think the interception speaks for itself,” Tillman said. “Here’s a guy who has so much talent and so much ability, and he’s smart. The nickel position is probably one of the hardest positions to play... And for him to come in as a rookie and really learn that position... ... I like him. I think he looks good at that position and it fits him well.”
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