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Panthers’ rookie Benjamin’s ability excites Rivera, team

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/09/20/06/Awul.Em.138.jpeg|387
    David T. Foster, III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/09/18/25/12GxIw.Em.138.jpeg|257
    David T. Foster, III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
    Panthers' rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin reaches out for a touchdown during preseason action Friday at Bank of America Stadium.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/09/18/25/g0LAR.Em.138.jpeg|316
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    Kelvin Benjamin catches passes prior to the Carolina Panthers’ preseason game against Buffalo on Friday.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/09/18/25/1qPij2.Em.138.jpeg|342
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, center, is congratulated by quarterback Derek Anderson, left, and tight end Greg Olsen following his touchdown pass reception against the Buffalo Bills during second-quarter action Friday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/09/18/25/1mvsP7.Em.138.jpeg|242
    Grant Halverson - GETTY
    Carolina Panthers rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, right, makes a touchdown catch as the Buffalo Bills’ Stephon Gilmoredefends during Friday’s preseason game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.

On a scale of one to 10, Kelvin Benjamin called his touchdown catch against Buffalo Friday night a seven.

A seven for Benjamin means running downfield on a go route, stepping on the ankle of cornerback Stephon Gilmore and causing himself to stumble, looking up for the Derek Anderson pass and, while falling to the ground and with his right knee on the grass, catching a 29-yard touchdown pass.

You’d think Benjamin was being modest for his ranking, but then he rated his last-minute, game-winning touchdown catch for Florida State in the BCS National Championship Game.

“That was easy, man,” said Benjamin, who rarely isn’t wearing a smile. “That was about a two.”

In consecutive days, the Panthers saw the good and the bad with their first-round draft pick. They saw him drop three passes on a lazy day at training camp Thursday, and then saw him make the best play of the evening Friday.

For all the talk about his 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame, and all the questions about his route-running and catching abilities, Benjamin went low to make a catch that gave fans and coaches an early assurance that he was the right pick at No. 28.

But there’s no parade for a preseason touchdown catch, no matter how incredible it may have been. Veteran receiver Jason Avant joked it was just “any other catch” while Benjamin was getting interviewed after the game, and Anderson also offered context around the grab.

“He’s coming a long way,” Anderson said. “He’s got a long way to go but he’s starting to get a feel for it and if you just get it around his body, he’s going to make some big plays for us.”

The long way Benjamin has come went through the muck, from which sugarcane grows. He grew up chasing rabbits around Belle Glade, Fla., a town known as “Muck City.”

A star in high school, Benjamin reportedly showed up to Florida State upwards of 255 pounds and had to slim down to 240 pounds before the start of his redshirt freshman year.

Along with his route-running abilities, the biggest knock on Benjamin dealt with his focus. That reared its head Thursday in Spartanburg.

After a training camp with no drops in team drills and no more than two or three in any other drill, Benjamin racked up three dropped passes in Carolina’s final practice before the exhibition.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Benjamin’s focus waned during the morning, and he spoke with receivers coach Ricky Proehl after practice after getting Benjamin refocused.

It wasn’t a coincidence that the day quarterback Cam Newton practiced the least all of camp was the same day Benjamin put up his worst practice.

“I definitely came out there off to the side,” Benjamin said. “I think ‘cause I first found out Cam wasn’t practicing too. You just got to stay focused out there. I let my focus slip a little bit. I came back the next day and refocused for the game.”

Newton and Benjamin have formed a special bond since the receiver was drafted. They talk on the phone frequently, went on trips to Atlanta and Baltimore in the offseason and regularly hang out together on Wofford’s campus.

Even though he couldn’t throw Benjamin his first touchdown, Newton was still a proud big brother on the sideline.

“Benji, man. Words can’t even explain, man,” Newton said. “I’ve seen so much growth, so much progress, and (I) will continue to see progress.”

With an arm length of 34 7/8 inches, Benjamin had the biggest catch radius of any receiver drafted in May. It makes him a threat in the red zone against smaller cornerbacks, and it’s a big reason the Panthers were so drawn to him.

Rivera has been cautious about hyping Benjamin too much, though. The team has carefully tried to curb any expectations that Benjamin will be the savior to a depleted receiving corps this year or an immediate replacement for Steve Smith, the team’s all-time leading receiver.

But Friday’s catch didn’t have him go up and snag a ball out of the air against an overmatched receiver. And the pass wasn’t a fade in the end zone. That Benjamin can be more than just a big body in the air excites Rivera.

“Those were the types of plays we saw him make,” Rivera said. “But the thing is, he’s also very consistent. He’s a consistent presence on third down. He was a consistent presence in the red zone for Florida State. And we really felt he could he could give something to us in terms of that. But we also knew he had big-play ability and those are the kind of big plays.”

Upon returning to the sideline after the touchdown, Benjamin was greeted with a familiar nickname by Newton.

“That’s what I’m talking ‘bout, Shmoo,” Benjamin recalled Newton saying. “I don’t know what it means, but that’s what he said.”

Newton wouldn’t reveal what Shmoo means or where he got it from, saying “the world will never know.”

He could be referring to the fictional cartoon character from the mid-20th century created by Al Capp.

A shmoo is plump and without arms, so in that sense the nickname doesn’t fit. But a shmoo is also amiable and always wears a smile, which would be an apt nickname for the affable Benjamin.

In the locker room after talking to the media, Benjamin turned to his left and looked at receiver Brenton Bersin, who was in the middle of a TV interview.

Benjamin began making funny faces while Bersin tried to keep from smiling.

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