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Benjamin is the star of Panthers camp

8/12/2014

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- "Ke-EL-VIN! Ke-EL-VIN! Ke-EL-VIN!"

Training camp was in the books late Tuesday morning, but fans lining the fence at the exit to the Wofford College practice fields couldn't get enough of Carolina Panthers rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.

"Oh, man," Benjamin shouted apologetically as he headed for the locker room in his socks, having just given away his second shoe -- autographed, of course -- to a fan. "I'm sorry."

With apologies to coach Ron Rivera, who said defensive end Frank Alexander was the star of camp, it has been the 6-foot-5, 240-pound phenom from Florida State.

Benjamin opened camp with a spectacular leaping catch, stole the show in the preseason opener against Buffalo with an awkward-but-acrobatic diving 29-yard touchdown catch and ended camp with a leaping touchdown catch over the middle with two defenders draped on him.

Outside of who would start at left tackle, which appears settled with Byron Bell, who would replace the franchise's all-time leading receiver, Steve Smith, was the biggest question entering camp.

It's not a question leaving camp.

Benjamin made Smith, not here for the first time since 2001, an afterthought.

"I grew up watching Steve Smith, so I knew a lot about him," Benjamin said. "I knew he was the franchise’s leading receiver here. It’s unfortunate that he’s gone now, but I’m going to try to come in and make my mark."

He's off to a good start.

"I'm not unhappy," said general manager Dave Gettleman, who made the decision to release Smith in March. "Kelvin, he came prepared. He came in very good physical shape. You could see his energy is there every day. He's done everything we've asked him to do and he's getting better all the time."

Benjamin still has areas he needs to improve, however.

"We saw him do the things we needed him to do, but it's not just about going out and making great catches," Rivera said "It's about knowing the offense. ... And there's some things that if teams are doubling you, or teams are rolling to you, they're trying to take you out.

"And if you're not doing things within what we're trying to do, that can hurt us. So he's young. He's got a lot to learn."

But in Benjamin, along with veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, the Panthers have a solid top three receivers. Finding depth will be the next step. Tavarres King and Brenton Bersin appear next in line, and it would benefit the team from a speed standpoint if Tiquan Underwood could show the consistency needed to stick.

There are no questions with the consistency of quarterback Cam Newton, coming off ankle surgery in March. He had one of his better camps and showed no ill effects from the injury.

That he was turned loose this week to run the read-option increases the odds that Carolina keeps only two quarterbacks.

But without a doubt, solidifying Benjamin as his top receiver was key in this camp. It set the tone not only for this season but for many to come.

"There's a lot of things that play into it," Rivera said. "But hopefully, barring something crazy, those two guys play together 10 years here in Charlotte and for the Panthers and make a big mark."

Camp was a nice beginning.