When a reporter approached Panthers offensive lineman Trai Turner in the locker room Thursday, veteran linemen Ryan Kalil and Fernando Velasco started giving the rookie a hard time about the media attention.
If Turner holds on to his starting job at right guard, the third-round pick from LSU will be doing a lot more interviews.
Turner is expected to make his second consecutive start Sunday at Cincinnati after playing all 66 snaps last week in a win against Chicago in the most extensive action of his young career.
He’s not taking anything for granted.
“What I’m learning in this league is everything is day to day. You can be a starter on a Monday and back to being a second- or third-stringer by Tuesday,” Turner said. “All I know is I’m going to come out there everyday, compete and work my tail off and get better.”
It looked like Turner might be the starter coming out of training camp, but a groin injury in the second exhibition against Kansas City sidelined him for the final two weeks of the preseason. Velasco, signed just before camp began, got the Week 1 start at Tampa Bay.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera expressed concern at the time about the conditioning of the 6-foot-3, 320-pound Turner because of the missed practices.
Velasco started the first four games, but Turner saw action in each, getting 60 of a possible 67 snaps during a Week 2 win against Detroit. After splitting time with Velasco in losses to Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Turner played the entire game against the Bears.
“I know me and Fernando and whoever else it may be, we all want to start. But we also have a role on this team,” Turner said. “I’m going to work my tail off to start. He’s going to work his tail off to start. And what happens, happens. But I know we’re going to contribute to this team as much as we can.”
Turner, 21, who played only two seasons at LSU before entering the draft, said he prefers run blocking over pass protection.
“You kind of soften D-linemen up a little bit. You get some contact going. Your pads get a little more snug when you hit,” Turner said. “It’s just a good feeling to overpower someone.”
That might be true, but Rivera said Turner graded out better in his pass blocking against the Bears. Rivera said Turner has been getting extra work with assistant offensive line coach Ray Brown on his pass-blocking technique.
“That’s one thing he’s really focused on is being a better pass protector. He’s done a nice job in terms of the extra reps he’s done,” Rivera said. “It’s kind of interesting that he did grade out better with his pass (protection) as opposed to his run blocking.”
On Sunday Turner will try to keep Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins off quarterback Cam Newton. In studying tape, Turner said the 6-foot-1, 303-pound Atkins likes to bull rush.
“He’s really strong. He likes to get the (outside) edge sometimes. But overall (he’s) a good player,” Turner said. “I’ve watched a lot of film on him. He has a lot of things in his repertoire.”
Turner has a varied skill set, as well. The New Orleans native allowed only three sacks in two seasons at LSU, while leading the SEC with 21 touchdown-resulting blocks last season.
Rivera said Turner was playing well before he was injured during the preseason.
“We didn’t want to overexpose him initially,” Rivera said. “And as he started getting stronger and stronger, we felt we would increase his reps to the point where we felt he’d be ready to go out there and play a full game as a starter.”
Second-year center Brian Folkerts believes Turner benefited from being able to break in slowly.
“I know he really wanted to get out there,” Folkerts said. “It probably helped him in the long run to kind of ease into it.”
Near the end of his interview that prompted the joking from Kalil and Velasco, Turner was asked what he’s doing better now than he was during camp.
“Everything,” he said.