CHARLOTTE — Casper Brinkley, you aren’t in college anymore.
On any other day, the former USC defensive end’s 6-foot-2, 259-pound frame would have cut an impressive figure on the football field.
On Friday — standing between Carolina Panthers defensive linemen Maake Kemoeatu (6-5, 345) and Julius Peppers (6-7, 283) — not so much.
Welcome to NFL minicamp, rookie.
“On that first day, it was sad. I couldn’t beat anybody. I couldn’t get to the quarterback,” Brinkley said Sunday shortly after the Panthers concluded their three-day minicamp. “The terminology and the speed of the game are so much faster and the offensive linemen, man, they’re all like All-Americans.”
So, in a fitting piece of irony for a rookie defensive end, Brinkley went back to school. He watched film from that first practice session and picked up on the tendencies of the offensive linemen he would face during the final drill of each practice.
At last, after being thumped a few times during the weekend, he undercut fellow rookie tackle Geoff Schwartz (6-6, 331) and bulled his way to the quarterback dummy.
“It’s really serious here,” Brinkley said. “Any time you go somewhere and learn a whole new playbook, that’s a lot of stress on you.”
Brinkley’s brother, Jasper, has been on the other end of the cell phone daily for support. Being apart is something the brothers knew would happen eventually, and they are adjusting to the reality.
“He’s just happy for me. We knew we would one day end up like this,” Casper said. “Last year, when he was out, it kind of hit me then when he wasn’t on the field. But we talk on the phone every day. As long as we have cell phones, we’re all right.”
While the entire team was present for the five weekend practices, the mini-camp experience is designed to most benefit incoming players, especially the rookies.
“Most of these guys play 10 or 11 games and we play double that in one season, so developing a pro body, physically, is really important,” Panthers coach John Fox said. “They learned what we are all about as far as our weightlifting and conditioning, and they’ll have to take that home and be in a hurry.”
With the retirement of Mike Rucker and the trade of Kris Jenkins, the Panthers’ defensive line is in a state of flux. However, Brinkley is one of about seven linemen vying for one spot on the active roster. The remaining spots are already taken by returning starters, free agents and high draft picks.
Brinkley was signed by the Panthers as an undrafted rookie free agent. His journey to the 53-man roster will begin near the bottom of the depth chart. On Sunday, he checked out of his hotel room and headed home with plenty of homework under his arm. He will have a month to absorb the material before the first of the Panthers’ organized training activities.
It helps that home, including Jasper and USC, is just down the road.
“It helps a little bit knowing I’m not that far away from home, but what really comforted me is I came into a great situation,” he said. “I think I can make the team, so that’s the best part.”
Receiving end. Pencil All-Pro wide receiver Steve Smith into the giddy column. Having former mentor Muhsin Muhammad and free-agent pickup D.J. Hackett in the receiving rotation has been so much fun Smith actually spiked a ball and celebrated following a touchdown Sunday morning.
Fox alluded to Muhammad’s positive influence on the minicamp’s first day, and Smith reiterated his impact following Sunday’s workout.
“He brings another level at the wide receiver position that might have been missing,” Smith said. “Moose can’t be replaced, and that’s evident by us bringing him back and by the plays he’s made so far just at minicamp.”
Of all the team’s offseason moves, Fox said shoring up the receiving corps was a top priority. After losing Muhammad in free agency, the Panthers signed Keyshawn Johnson. He caught 70 passes in 2006, but the Panthers struggled to score. Last year, second-round pick Dwayne Jarrett flopped as a rookie while Drew Carter and Keary Colbert split time at No. 2. The result: 70 catches combined and a record that worsened from 8-8 to 7-9.
“That was an area where we felt like we needed to add some depth, not just good players, but good guys, too,” Fox said. “I think we hit on both guys.”
Reach Obley at (803) 771-8473.