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Bene' Benwikere shows why Panthers' D best with him at nickel

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- "Wowwwwwwwww!"

The sound reverberated from the far practice field Tuesday as players marveled at the one-handed interception made by second-year defensive back Bene' Benwikere on the first play of team drills.

It indeed was spectacular.

And it was the perfect example of why the Carolina Panthers' defense is better with Benwikere playing nickel back instead of the every-down corner.

This isn't to suggest the former San Jose State player can't handle being an every-down corner. The Panthers finished the 2014 regular season with four straight wins and then won a playoff game when Benwikere was placed in that role a year ago.

But because of Benwikere's unique skill set, his great vision and ability to read defenses, he can do things at nickel that elevates the overall defense in passing situations.

"He understands the position; he understands how [opponents] attack the slot," coach Ron Rivera said after the first of a three-day minicamp, which resumes Wednesday. "What he did on that particular play is a great example of his abilities and understanding of what's going on.

"He knew he was being high-lowed, so he hinged out and got his depth into the throwing lane and was there. It really is hard to say, 'Oh, the quarterback made a bad read.' On that particularly play, it was really just a good play by Bene'."

Benwikere (6-foot, 195 pounds) made enough of those plays early in training camp last year that he was dubbed "Big Play Bene' (pronounced Ben-AY)."

This one may have been his best, at least in practice. After missing most off offseason workouts with a hamstring injury, Benwikere found himself in the flats with the running back flared behind the line of scrimmage and a wide receiver running an out route -- a high-low situation as Rivera noted.

Benwikere adjusted and quarterback Cam Newton never saw him.

"Did a nice technique, hinged into his drop and was right in the throwing lane," Rivera said. "It was one of those things where Cam put a good ball out there, but [Benwikere] just went up there and made the play."

Benwikere still will compete with 34-year-old veteran Charles "Peanut" Tillman for the every-down corner spot opposite Josh Norman when the Panthers are in their base defense.

But Rivera said there's no doubt Benwikere will be the nickel back in passing situations. The Panthers opened last season with a 3-2 record when Benwikere was in that role. They were 0-5-1 when he was out with an ankle injury suffered in Week 5 against Chicago.

Tillman said the nickel position fits Benwikere well.

"I mean, the interception speaks for itself," he said. "Here's a guy who has so much talent, so much ability, and he's smart. The nickel position is probably one of the hardest positions to play because you're never right.

"For him to come in as a rookie and earn that position ..."

The Panthers traded a seventh-round pick to move up 20 spots to select Benwikere in the fifth round. Rivera personally made the trip to San Jose State with secondary coach Steve Wilks to work Benwikere out prior to the draft.

It was apparent then that Benwikere, who tied a school record with 14 career interceptions, was suited to play immediately at nickel. That hasn't changed.

"Oh, my God!" Norman said. "He's an incredible talent. He showed that with that one-handed interception."