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Panthers rookie Bené Benwikere makes immediate impact

Tampa Bay had scored touchdowns on consecutive possessions, and a 17-0 Carolina lead was reduced to 17-14. And now, with 96 seconds to play, the Buccaneers had the ball again.

Quarterback Josh McCown hit Bobby Rainey with a short pass and linebacker Luke Kuechly hit the running back and stripped the ball at the Tampa Bay 29. Kuechly gets credit for the play, and should.

But if you watch the NFL you know what happens next. After the ball is dislodged everybody scrambles, grown men looking like T-ball players chasing a grounder. Several hands touch the football, but nobody allows anybody to grab it. The ball finally bounces out of bounds, and the team that fumbled gets it back.

On Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, rookie cornerback Bené Benwikere made it simple. He tracked the ball, picked it up and returned it 6 yards.

When the Buccaneers next ran a play 17 seconds remained, and the Panthers won their opener 20-14.

“That’s something we preach around here,” Benwikere says back in Charlotte. “Luke did a nice job of getting it out and I don’t even know if he knew the ball was out.

“We practice takeaways all the time, fumble recovery drills. The more you practice something the easier its gets and since we work on that every day as much as possible…”

Nobody on the team is surprised Benwikere made the play. He appears to have come to Carolina fully formed. In Spartanburg and in exhibitions you’d wait for him to get overwhelmed or lost. He chose not to.

He played 40 of 56 snaps on defense Sunday and seven on special teams.

He admits to rookie moments. When he ran onto the field for his first regular-season game he noticed the band and the fans and the stadium. He was in the NFL, and this proved it.

Then it was work, same as it always has been.

“I’ve been playing football my whole life,” says Benwikere, who turned 23 last week.

He was the 148th player selected in the draft. The Panthers traded up to take him in the fifth round.

True, he played at San Jose State. But there are no mid-major secrets anymore. If you can play, everybody knows.

So why did Benwikere, the lowest of this season’s draft picks to make the roster, last into the fifth round?

“I think because of the number,” says coach Ron Rivera.

Rivera is talking about Benwikere’s time in the 40.

“He hovers right around the 4.4s 4.5s, and sometimes we get caught up in those numbers,” says Rivera.

“It’s funny because (former Tampa Bay cornerback) Ronde Barber did our game. When we drafted (Benwikere) we talked about two guys he reminds us of. One is (former Chicago cornerback) Nathan Vasher, who plays with great vision and has great ball skills. And then Ronde, who’s got a great knack for playing the nickel.”

Veteran Carolina safety Thomas DeCoud says Benwikere has “great instincts. For a young guy he’s playing ahead of his years in terms of knowing what’s going on around him and being able to make plays.”

Veterans respect Benwikere because he does what first-year players are supposed to do.

“As a rookie you have to take coaching and know when to be quiet and take what the coach is saying to you,” says DeCoud. “And he does that. He’s been a good rookie, learning and being a student of the game.”

DeCoud was selected by Atlanta in the third round of the 2008 draft.

Do later picks, especially defensive backs, have to do something special, such as recover a fumble in their first game, to prove they belong?

“You may have a little more of a chip on your shoulder,” says DeCoud. “But in this league, no matter where you’re drafted, whether you’re the first pick or Mr. Irrelevant, you have to go out and play with a chip on your shoulder.”

There was no chip after the game. But there were accolades for the fumble recovery. Benwikere’s telephone lit up with calls from family and friends.

I ask him how he’d describe his first game to them.

“I would tell them it was a dream and it came out to all I wanted it to be,” says Benwikere. “I enjoyed it. I enjoyed every moment of it.”

He left Tampa, Fla., with a victory, experience and, presumably, a football.

You keep it?

“Of course,” Benwikere says.

What will you do with it?

“It’s going in the man cave,” he says. “As soon as I get a house.”