GLENDALE, Ariz.--– There comes a time in every NFL rookie's football life when he has to grow up.
Sometimes it's forced. Other times it's natural.
Rodney Gunter's time came Wednesday night.
That's when Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians told the fourth-round pick that he'll be replacing Corey Peters in the starting lineup after Peters was lost for the season with a torn left Achilles tendon. Gunter's first training camp was not yet three weeks old and his first NFL game was still more than three weeks away.
Gunter's initial reaction was "time for me to be more than a rookie." But then he slept on it, and when Gunter woke up Thursday morning in the luxurious hotel the Cardinals call their training camp home, the reality of his situation began to set in.
"It was a little bit of pressure but now I'm just soaking it in, time to work," Gunter said. "Time to step up to the plate."
Gunter wasn't surprised the Cardinals turned to a 23-year-old rookie who wasn't invited to the combine. Neither were his veteran teammates.
"Have you seen last game?" veteran defensive tackle Cory Redding said. "He is unbelievable talented. He's strong. He just loves playing ball.
"The kid is willing to do whatever it takes. He wants to get on the field. He wants to make this team."
Making the 53-man roster isn't a worry Gunter will need to concern himself with for the next few weeks. It'll be keeping a spot on the first-team defense. For the last three years, Arians has stressed to his players to put their resume on tape.
Gunter has heeded that advice.
"He's got all over the quarterback a bunch of times," Arians said. "The centers have had a really tough time with his length and strength."
Nose tackle may not be Gunter's future but Arians said Gunter will definitely be on the field in some capacity.
"He's very multiple, position flexible," Arians said. "And he's very bright for a young guy. He's a very hard-working guy. So, I have no concerns about where he's going to play. He's going to play a bunch."
After letting Dan Williams go in free agency last March, the Cardinals built a well of depth at the front of their defensive line with a different type of nose tackle. Instead of the two-gap nose tackle, Arians wants them to be more athletic so they can "cover more space."
Peters was the centerpiece of Arizona's transition to that style of nose guards, while Gunter and rookie undrafted free agent Xavier Williams were cut from the same mold. Williams, who has impressed coaches with his ability to play inside and outside, will push Gunter for playing time.
"We want to be able to create more space, create more pocket pressure with our inside interior rush," Arians said.
Alameda Ta'amu, a nose guard who backed up Williams the last two years, will also compete for the starting job. He tore his ACL at the end of 2013 season and was re-signed in March. Almost two years removed from the inury, Ta'amu said he's "day and night healthier" than he was last season.
Ta'amu understands what his competition looks like. He sees the style of nose tackles that Arians has brought in. He said he'll watch tape of Peters and try to glean what he can from his game, so he can "make the defense feel like we haven't missed a beat."
But both Williams and Ta'amu will be competing against Gunter's freak-like athleticism.
He's 6-foot-5, 305 pounds and "country strong" as cornerback Jerraud Powers said. Although he has the physical tools -- "He's physically blessed," Calais Campbell said. -- Gunter said his technique still needs work and he needs to be more consistent.
He's been leaning on veterans like Campbell and Frostee Rucker, who have seen what Gunter will be capable of.
"He's made plays this camp against ones that are like, 'Wow,'" Campbell said. "This guy can be special."
Gunter has the self-awareness to understand the veterans next to him on the line are counting on him. And with little room for error in his new role as a starter, Gunter has embraced their confidence in him.
"I'm surrounded by greatness," Gunter said. "So, I have no other choice but to be great."