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2013 CAROLINA PANTHERS TRAINING CAMP | Spartanburg, S.C.

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Josh Norman makes his bid to start in Carolina Panthers’ secondary

SPARTANBURG Josh Norman wanted to take it easy Saturday.

The second-year cornerback spent his day off hanging out with family, trying to have a low-key day before returning to Panthers training camp.

But that was tough to do after what happened Friday night. Norman had two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, in Carolina’s preseason opener against the Chicago Bears. That led to a flood of texts and social media interactions for Norman.

“(I was) not paying too much attention, but those guys around me bring it up all the time,” Norman said.

Though the starting secondary seemed to have solidified after the first week of camp, Friday night helped re-establish Norman as a candidate for a starting cornerback position. It was a spot he earned in training camp last year as a rookie before getting benched toward the end of the season,. It’s also one he hopes to get back.

“First off, that was my goal, to come in and start,” Norman said. “Once I got that down, it was just progressing through the season. Every game got better. I had plays where I was a little soft shelled and plays were I was aggressive. So I did good things, a lot of good things, and toward the end I kind of started to tail off.”

Last year, Norman, a fifth-round draft pick from Coastal Carolina, was the youngest member of a secondary that gave up the highest opponent completion percentage (66.8 percent) of any team in the league. Still, he led the unit with eight passes defended.

But in no game did Norman struggle more than the Week 13 loss to the one-win Kansas City Chiefs. Norman gave up several completions, including a touchdown in the third quarter that put the Chiefs up 24-14.

The Panthers coaching staff benched Norman, and after missing just 10 snaps against Kansas City, Norman was in on just nine snaps the following week against Atlanta.

“I had a bad night, and I made some real unfortunate errors,” Norman said. “It was just a bad game. I really wanted to bounce back the next week, and we were playing Atlanta, coaches saw fit to move in a different direction, and I had to respect that and be humble.”

Veteran safety Charles Godfrey saw how Norman was affected by the demotion and told the rookie to continue learning the defense and keep his head up.

“Strong men bounce back from that,” Godfrey said. “And that’s what I tried to put into him was be strong, carry yourself as a champion and everything will take care of itself.”

Norman has improved on his zone coverage in the past year after coming from a college scheme that had him mainly playing man-to-man. Friday night against the Bears, Norman got the start at right cornerback when Captain Munnerlyn, the full-time starter, slid to nickel on the Bears’ first play of the night.

Quarterback Jay Cutler and Alshon Jeffery didn’t seem to be on the same page, and after watching film, Norman believes Jeffery cut off the route while Cutler thought his receiver would keep running. Cutler’s pass was in front of Jeffery, and Norman stepped up and picked off Cutler at the 29-yard line, returning it 11 yards.

In the third quarter, third-string quarterback Matt Blanchard overthrew Fendi Onobun and the pass fell into the waiting arms of Norman. He ran up the sideline, cut to the middle of the field and ran for a 60-yard touchdown.

Norman always had a plan for his first pick-six at Bank of America Stadium.

“I said the first time I ever touch the end zone, I want to go up there and get with the fans,” Norman said. “I’d seen it on TV so I said why not?”

He leaped into the stands where a “Jump Zone” sign was hanging. Standing at the railing was a fan in a No. 24 jersey – the same number as Norman.

He didn’t plan that.

Jonathan Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

Complete Carolina Panthers coverage from The Charlotte Observer at CharlotteObserver.com/panthers
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