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Panthers DE Charles Johnson doesn't want first hit to be in season opener

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson says he needs to hit somebody besides his own teammates before the Sept. 13 opener at Jacksonville.

“I feel like I do,” Johnson said on Wednesday, the first time he has practiced in team drills since suffering a calf injury on Aug. 9. “I feel like the first time I get on the field I don’t want it to be Jacksonville.”

Coach Ron Rivera wants Johnson on the field before then, too. Whether that will be on Friday night against the New England Patriots at Bank of America Stadium or the following Thursday at Pittsburgh he can’t say.

Rivera wants to see how Johnson responds to the limited number of snaps he had on Wednesday before committing.

But Rivera understands the importance of getting Johnson a few snaps before the opener.

“You don’t want their first live contact to be in the opener,’’ Rivera said. “Unfortunately, that’s what we had last year with Charles. We want to be real smart about it. We want to make sure he’s ready to roll because he’s so important to what we do defensively.’’

Johnson played in only one of the four preseason games last season due to nagging injuries. He didn’t play at all in the final two.

In the opener at Tampa Bay, Johnson was limited to one tackle and two quarterback pressures. He had only three tackles and no sacks in the first four games.

That’s not enough from a player whose 62.5 sacks is second all-time in team history.

Starting in the fifth game, Johnson had a sack three straight weeks. He finished with 8.5, his lowest total since 2009.

Whether Johnson’s slow start had anything to do with his limited participation during the preseason or not having 2013 Pro Bowl selection Greg Hardy on the left side, Rivera can’t say. But he can say getting Johnson some reps this week or next “is going to be very important.’’

Rivera won’t have that luxury with defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who hasn’t practiced since the first week of camp when he suffered a stress reaction on his foot that was surgically repaired in January.

Lotulelei made his first appearance on the practice field since that injury on Wednesday. He spent the entire session on a stationary bike, so it’s unlikely he’ll be ready to face Pittsburgh.

But the Panthers have other players who can fill in adequately for Lotulelei in their four-man rotation at tackle. They don’t have another proven every-down defensive end like Johnson.

Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was among those glad to see Johnson back on the field for practice.

“It’s fun to have him back around,’’ Kuechly said. “You get a guy back like Charles, a veteran guy who has played well and been around for a while, one of the leaders on the defense. He does a great job.’’