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Panthers WR Stephen Hill could again 'push for a starting job'

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Those within earshot of the practice fields at Wofford College in August won’t soon forget the scream as Carolina Panthers wide receiver Stephen Hill landed awkwardly on his right leg.

It was blood-curdling.

Onlookers winced as though they experienced the torn ACL themselves. Players kneeled in silence as trainers carted the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Hill off the field only two days into training camp.

Then Hill was forgotten.

Few understood just how well the second-round pick by the New York Jets in 2012 was playing. Few considered it that big of a deal because Kelvin Benjamin was the star.

You can’t blame anybody for that. The Jets gave up on Hill and released him before the 2014 season, and he spent the year on Carolina’s practice squad even though the Panthers had a group of no-name receivers after the release of Steve Smith.

Even after Benjamin suffered a similar ACL tear on the final week of camp, Hill’s injury was an afterthought. The focus was on how rookie Devin Funchess would save the day.

But wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl knew. He recently told WFNZ-AM radio that Hill was “ready to make me famous as a coach."

He said on Wednesday during the second of a three-day minicamp that Hill “would have pushed for a starting job."

“Unbelievable," Proehl said. “That’s how well he was performing in camp last year."

Hill again has been the forgotten member of Carolina’s receivers group throughout offseason workouts, which end today. The focus has been on Benjamin and Funchess, even though Benjamin has been a spectator during team drills.

But Proehl hasn’t forgotten Hill, also relegated to watching team drills until camp begins next month. He can’t wait to get him on the field to see if he can pick up where he left off last year.

Just watching him run routes and catch passes with Benjamin during individual drills puts a frog in Proehl’s throat. He knows it’s almost a miracle that Hill is in this position after suffering a tear that was worse than Benjamin’s.

“He’s worked his tail off," Proehl said.

Proehl also knows Hill is a big reason Benjamin is on target to be full-go once the team returns to Wofford.

Hill, 25, often pushed Benjamin to work harder on days Benjamin needed a push.

“When you’ve got Stephen busting his tail as hard as he does, it brought Kelvin along with him and helped him get to where he is today," Proehl said.

The upside of Hill and Benjamin suffering the same injury within a month of each other is they were able to lean on each other through the hard times.

“That was one of the blessings about their situation," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “They had each other."

In Benjamin (6-5), Hill (6-4) and Funchess (6-4), along with tight end Greg Olsen (6-5), the Panthers have one of the biggest receiving corps in the NFL. Proehl can’t imagine one bigger.

That Funchess and Hill can line up in the slot as well as the outside gives offensive coordinator Mike Shula the option of having them all on the field at the same time if he wants.

Hill and Funchess also have the speed to stretch defenses the way Ted Ginn Jr. did last season.

One could even make Ginn expendable.

Few looked at Hill as that type of player in August when he let out that blood-curdling scream, but Proehl knew.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am for him, just running around here catching the football," he said. “Suffering the injury that he had less than year ago, and to be running out here competing, is really a testament to his hard work."