The youngest player on the Panthers’ roster faces the biggest challenge in Sunday’s season opener at Tampa Bay.
Welcome to the NFL, Trai Turner – go block Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.
Adding to Turner’s tough task is the fact that Monday was the right guard’s first practice since injuring his left groin in the second exhibition against Kansas City on Aug. 17.
“I’m just trying to get my feet back under me, make sure I get the game plan down for the week and continue to be conditioned,” said Turner, the third-round pick from LSU.
Turner will have help trying to keep McCoy from taking aim at quarterback Cam Newton’s cracked ribs. Backup center Fernando Velasco, who started 27 games the past two seasons for Pittsburgh and Tennessee, took first-team reps at both guard spots during Monday’s practice.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera indicated Turner would start against the Buccaneers after the team cut Chris Scott, who started eight games at right guard in 2013. Nate Chandler, who started the second half of last season at right guard after Scott was injured, is now at right tackle.
Rivera said his main concern with the 6-foot-3, 320-pound Turner is his conditioning level after his two-week break because of the groin injury.
“Trai’s coming off the groin. We also know it’s going to be hot, and he hasn’t had a chance to truly condition like a lot of the other guys. So if we do anything, he’ll have to be spelled on occasion,” Rivera said. “It’s going to tax him. It’s going to tax anybody. So we’ll just make sure he’s ready to roll.”
Turner isn’t sure which play he was injured against the Chiefs, only that “something funky happened.” He had his groin wrapped during Monday’s practice, and it’s unclear whether he’s 100 percent.
Turner, who turned 21 in June a month after the Panthers drafted him, said he began watching tape last week of McCoy, the two-time Pro Bowler who was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2010 draft.
“Very good athlete, a guy that’s been in the Pro Bowl multiple times,” Turner said. “I think that speaks for itself. He’s a great player.”
Velasco, 29, who was with the Steelers last season after five years in Tennessee, said the only time he’s faced McCoy was in an exhibition a couple of years ago. But he knows the 6-4, 300-pound McCoy, who lined up over the Panthers’ right guard last season, will be a tough matchup.
“He was a first-round pick for a reason. He’s definitely coming into his own,” Velasco said. “He’s got a lot of talent, uses his hands well, gets off the ball extremely well. So our hands will be full come Sunday.”
McCoy had only one tackle in two games against Carolina last season, although Panthers center Ryan Kalil said McCoy played hard and had a couple of other near-misses in the backfield. Kalil said it looks like McCoy is more comfortable in the scheme implemented by new Bucs coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.
“He’s somebody we circle every year when we play them. He’s a very talented guy, a lot of respect around the league for what he does,” Kalil said. “Obviously, that defense starts with him. But I honestly do believe he’s flanked by some really good, talented guys.”
The Bucs signed a pair of free agents during the offseason to fortify the defensive front in end Michael Johnson and tackle Clinton McDonald. Tampa Bay also returns pass-rushing end Adrian Clayborn, who had 5.5 sacks in 2013.
Kalil said he likes the versatility Velasco has brought to the line since the Panthers signed him July 24, the day the team reported to Charlotte for the start of preseason drills. Kalil also is confident in Turner, who was getting the majority of reps at right guard before his injury.
“I think Trai physically is very capable of playing in this league. I think he’s shown that. He’s done a really good job,” Kalil said. “The biggest thing as a rookie is just the experience. Things happen a lot faster from training camp to preseason, from preseason to regular-season games.
“But he’s done a good job up to this point. He’s been on the right page. He knows what he’s doing and he just has to keep working.”
Turner, who gave up three sacks in two seasons as LSU’s starting right guard, said he’s confident in himself.
“I know I’ll go out there and just play football,” he said. “At the end of the day that’s what it comes down to.”