When the Carolina Panthers did not re-sign nickel cornerback Captain Munnerlyn this offseason, Carolina coach Ron Rivera knew the team had to find a replacement.
After a rare visit to a pre-draft workout, Rivera figured Bené Benwikere could be that guy.
Benwikere inherited Munnerlyn’s position, and after sitting out the past six games with a high ankle sprain, he’ll return to his starting role against Minnesota this week.
“He was one of the only workouts that I went to and watched,” said Rivera, who saw Benwikere’s San Jose State workout while visiting family in California in the offseason. “And sitting down with (defensive backs coach) Steve (Wilks) and listening to him, we really looked at him and we thought this guy really reminded us of certain players that we’ve coached and been around.
“He showed it early. And then unfortunately he got hurt. You can’t account for that, but knowing that this is the kind of guy you’re looking for we’re pretty excited about it.”
The Panthers liked him enough to trade their seventh-round pick to move up 20 spots in the fifth round to secure the cornerback. Benwikere had 12 interceptions in his final two seasons at San Jose State, but Rivera and Panthers’ players wondered if the success at a small football school would translate to the NFL.
Benwikere displayed the same ball-hawking abilities that earned him acclaim in college during the preseason. Early in training camp, Benwikere intercepted two passes and broke up three more in just one practice.
Benwikere’s immediate impact softened the blow of letting Munnerlyn walk in free agency and sign with the Vikings.
“(Captain) was a workhorse,” Rivera said. “A very stout, physical football player. A little tough guy. There was a certain mentality and toughness playing the nickel position. You look for that characteristic in a guy. With Bené, we found it.”
After winning the job against the since-released Charles Godfrey after Week 1, Benwikere had two passes defensed against the Lions in Week 2. The following three games Benwikere played well, but he didn’t replicate the kind of production from college or training camp.
Against Chicago, Benwikere suffered a high ankle sprain. What he thought would sideline him for three or four weeks ended up requiring seven.
“I finally started to get healthy just before the bye week but wanted to rest it a little bit longer just to be sure that I was fully able to go,” Benwikere said. “But I’m ready.
“I really have no clue why it took so long. I guess it just did. I was doing all the rehab necessary, was here every day, coming in early. That’s just the way it played out.”
Part of the reason for the long recovery was how essential Benwikere’s footwork is to his job. The speed and quick turns necessary for a nickel corner forced him to sit longer than he wanted to.
“It took a little longer because of the position he plays. To go out there and do the things he wants to do with that high ankle sprain, it just didn’t happen,” Rivera said.
The Panthers played safety Colin Jones and cornerback James Dockery in Benwikere’s place, and those two players will likely drift back to their natural positions with his return.
Cornerback Antoine Cason believes the secondary – Carolina is the 26th-ranked passing defense in the NFL – gets a boost with Benwikere’s return.
“He’s a West Coast guy, a Southern California boy,” said Cason, who’s from southern California like Benwikere. “The best DBs come from Southern California.”
Even with nearly two months separating Benwikere from his last game action, he’s not worried about having to knock off any rust off his ball-hawking skills.
“I don’t think it really ever goes away like that,” Benwikere said. “It’s just about making sure you understand the game and study film. How smart you are is what’s going to get you to the ball.”