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Sorensen: Not seeing Smith at Panthers practice is taking time to get used to

Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/03/14/00/02/CQedF.Em.138.jpg|316
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    Carolina Panthers wide receiver (89) Steve Smith blows a kiss to the stands prior to first quarter action vs the Chicago Bears at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC. Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/05/28/21/28/PfJwB.Em.138.jpeg|406
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin catches a pass from quarterback Cam Newton during an organized team activity on Wednesday.

The Carolina Panthers held their second organized team workout Wednesday, this one open to the media. If you’re accustomed to Carolina practices, you immediately look for No. 89.

It’s a habit. Every practice for Steve Smith is a cause. Challenging, cajoling, jumping, hustling, talking, diving or spinning the ball, he will make something happen, and everybody will know.

Smith, of course, is a now Baltimore Raven. But it takes not a few plays but a few series to stop looking for him.

The receivers gather in a group and their varying heights suggest a skyline. There’s a house, a duplex, a condominium and a giant skyscraper. Welcome to Charlotte, Kelvin Benjamin. The rookie first-round pick is 6-foot-5. When he leaves practice he takes six of the seven steps up the loading dock two at a time.

The Panthers lost their top four wide receivers – Smith, Ted Ginn Jr., Brandon LaFell and Domenik Hixon – since we saw them last. We knew their numbers.

Counting rookie free agents, there are seven new receivers on the field Wednesday. We don’t know their numbers and, in some cases, their names.

A receiver makes a catch and, in a move that appears choreographed, everybody on the sidelines, even Panthers employees, pulls out their roster to see who it was. Nice catch, No. 16. You are – Philly Brown, the rookie out of Ohio State.

I check my roster twice when No. 28 tears through the middle of the line and quickly cuts outside. I know that 28 is running back Jonathan Stewart. But I’m not accustomed to seeing him until September.

The most common combination in practice is reserve quarterback Derek Anderson throwing to Tiquan Underwood. Underwood repeatedly gets open over the middle, on the sidelines and deep, and Anderson repeatedly finds him.

Underwood, 27, is a fast free-agent wide receiver the Panthers signed out of Tampa Bay.

“He understands it,” Anderson, who will begin his 10th season, says of Underwood. “He runs good routes. Right now, it’s just kind of a mix. I get him some days. (Tuesday) I had a different crew in there. It’s just kind of getting a familiarity with everybody.”

Players have been working together since April. The quarterbacks’ goal is to anticipate what a receiver will do. They’re still learing.

“The biggest thing is just getting used to a guy and how he runs,” says Anderson. “You were so used to our other guys and their break points.”

Cam Newton had surgery on his ankle in mid-March and watches practice. But when it ends he throws with his customary speed. Benjamin, the 6-5 rookie, breaks over the middle, Newton hits him in stride and Benjamin drops the ball.

Benjamin stops, slowly works his right hand through his dreadlocks and then runs back toward Newton. Newton looks at him and smiles and continues to smile. Benjamin repeats the route and this time makes the catch.

Also working with Newton is Kealoha Pilares. When Pilares isn’t running routes, he’s running sprints.

Remember him? One of the fastest men in Hawaii, he once returned a kick 101 yards against Detroit. A fifth-round pick out of Hawaii in 2011, Pilares missed the last eight games of 2012 with a shoulder injury and all of 2013 with an ACL tear in his right knee.

“With all my injuries I’m glad and grateful to be here,” says Pilares, 26. “It feels like forever.”

I tell him that spectators notice Smith’s absence. Even though receivers have been working together a momth, does he?

“Oh definitely, definitely, every day,” says Pilares. “Since I’ve been here he’s always been the head guy in charge and now we really don’t have anyone like that, even the veterans. Because everybody’s like a rookie. So no one really is there to tell the rookies what to do. Steve’s gone. You can feel it.”

Even the veterans, Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, are new.

Yet the focus can never be on who isn’t playing wide receiver. It has to be on who is.

“We’re all we have right now,” says Pilares, his words sounding like a motto. “We just have to trust in each other and grow.”

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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