Carolina Panthers

Trai Turner turns tackle on short notice, says he’ll do his best for Panthers

Carolina Panthers right guard Trai Turner (70) was forced to play right tackle after an injury to Daryl Williams, and did his best to protect Cam Newton (1) against one of the NFL’s best edge rushers.
Carolina Panthers right guard Trai Turner (70) was forced to play right tackle after an injury to Daryl Williams, and did his best to protect Cam Newton (1) against one of the NFL’s best edge rushers. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Lining up at right tackle seemed like a fun diversion for Carolina Panthers right guard Trai Turner last week at practice.

Turner played tackle at his New Orleans high school. So when Panthers coaches asked him to slide over a spot during practice in the event of an emergency, Turner happily did so.

Then stuff got real Sunday in Oakland.

When starter Daryl Williams went down with a sprained ankle in the first half against the Raiders, Turner was thrown into the fray at the Oakland Coliseum.

His assignment?

Keep Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack, one of the best edge rushers in the NFL, off quarterback Cam Newton.

Good luck with that.

“It started off like a fun thing – ‘Oh, this is cool.’ And then when the team needs you, you do your best,” Turner said. “You come out there and I know these guys are counting on me. It’s cool that they had that much faith in me to go out there and play that position. So I’m going to go out there and give it my all. I’m going to have fun.”

Trying to block Mack on short notice couldn’t have been much fun for Turner, the third-year guard who earned his first Pro Bowl berth in 2015.

Mack made two huge plays, one at the end of each half, keying the Raiders’ 35-32 victory. Neither was entirely Turner’s fault.

Near the end of the first half with the Panthers deep in their own end, Mack perfectly read Newton’s screen pass to running back Fozzy Whittaker. Mack then jumped back – away from Turner – to intercept Newton and run it in for a 6-yard touchdown.

Turner had a tough time with Mack in the fourth quarter, when he allowed three hurries and a game-sealing strip-sack.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Turner was supposed to have help on Mack’s fourth-down sack. But Whittaker was late getting to the edge, and Mack overpowered Turner on his way to Newton.

“The last play’s not exactly what people think it is. He had a little bit more help and unfortunately the help didn’t get there in time,” Rivera said. “That’s too bad.”

A start at tackle

With Williams out this week, Turner is expected to start at tackle Sunday at Seattle. It will be his first start at the position since he was a 17-year-old high school senior at St. Augustine in New Orleans.

Despite a successful career at tackle, most schools envisioned the 6-3, 310-pound Turner moving inside in college. He was rated among the top 16 guards in the country by two major recruiting sites based on potential alone.

“As you grow and you get to the next level, so does the opponent,” Turner said Wednesday following practice at San Jose State. “Some guys think tackles are 6-6, 6-7. I think 6-3’s cool.”

Turner ended up at LSU, where his performance in two seasons at guard prompted the Panthers to take him in the third round of the 2014 draft. He shared time with Fernando Velasco initially as a rookie before taking over the right guard spot full-time the latter part of the season.

Panthers coaches and players said they appreciated Turner’s willingness to jump in to try to help a position group that has been hit hard by injuries.

In addition to Williams, the Panthers have lost two offensive line starters for the season – left tackle Michael Oher (concussion) and center Ryan Kalil (shoulder). Backup center Gino Gradkowski (knee) also went on injured reserve this week.

‘Resourceful’

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll called Turner’s effort against the Raiders “very resourceful.”

“I thought Trai did fine even when he moved out. They’re fortunate to have that kind of flexibility,” Carroll said on a conference call. “We’re all, at this time of the year, all scrambling at one spot or another. I thought these guys patched up pretty good and made a great comeback in that (Raiders) game last week.”

Turner lacks the ideal height and arm length of NFL tackles. And while Turner is a gifted blocker in space as a pulling guard, he hasn’t faced the type of speed rushers that tackles see every week on the edge.

But given the other choices – veteran Chris Scott and former Cleveland Browns practice squad tackle Dan France – the Panthers feel Turner is their best option.

“I thought he looked pretty good. He’s such a good athlete and he competes,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “Probably the biggest things (for a tackle), other than the natural football ability, are the height, arm length and then the quickness. Where Trai excels ... is he’s got really good football instincts and he’s got really good quickness.”

A challenge for Sunday

Tight end Greg Olsen praised Turner’s footwork and toughness.

“He has a lot of experience, not necessarily on the edge. But he’s going to go in there and fight and he’s going to battle,” Olsen said. “Sometimes you’ve got to make some (line) calls and get everybody on the same page as guys settle into their new spots on who’s on each side of them. But he’s going to be fine.”

Turner will line up against Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett on run downs, then deal with edge rusher Frank Clark in passing situations.

With a couple of good showings down the stretch this season, a reporter jokingly told Turner he could ask for offensive tackle money he begins negotiating his next contract.

“I’m not even thinking about that,” Turner said, smiling. “I’m thinking about Sunday right now.”

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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