Byron Bell will look to protect rookie Cam Newton (above) the rest of the season. (Photo by John Clark)
CHARLOTTE – A few months ago Byron Bell was laying carpet in New Mexico.
Now he’s a starting right tackle for the Carolina Panthers in charge of protecting the franchise’s biggest investment ever -- rookie quarterback Cam Newton.
Bell is Carolina’s full-time starter for the foreseeable future with Jeff Otah lost for the remainder of the season to back and knee problems. Bell has started two games for the Panthers in place of Otah, giving up sacks in both games.
But he’s become a favorite of the coaching staff, fighting against tough odds to make the team as an undrafted rookie.
Bell said not much will change in his approach to the game now that he’s the starter.
“I’ve pretty much had a starter’s mentality,” said Bell, an undrafted rookie from New Mexico. “That’s what we all have in (the offensive lineman’s) room. I’m just working hard to give my team a chance up front.”
Bell said he found out on Tuesday when assistant offensive line coach Ray Brown called to tell him the team was putting Otah on injured reserve.
Bell believes he’s played well for the most part, but thinks he can be much better.
“I have to stop all of my holding penalties in general,” Bell said. “I have two sacks in my first two starts as well and I need to cut down on that. But I’m learning. I’m learning and getting in my playbook.”
Said coach Ron Rivera of Bell: "He's a work in progress. But he's been a good, steady worker and we're really pleased with what we're getting. He is a rookie. But he's played well when he's had opportunities."
Panthers guard Travelle Wharton said while he hates to lose a player like Otah, but he likes what Bell brings to the table.
“Since day one he has come in and wanted to get better,” Wharton said. “He worked at trying to understand the concepts we have on offense. He’s a hard worker and it just shows. He stays late and studies. He’s a hungry young guy who is full of energy. It will be tough losing a guy of Jeff’s stature, but I really feel Byron can step in and do a good job.”
OLSEN RETURNS: Panthers tight end Greg Olsen returned to action Thursday after sitting out a day with a toe injury.
Olsen said he feels fine and will play Sunday against Washington.
“It was a little preventative stuff we did,” Olsen said. “It wasn’t a big deal.”
Linebacker Thomas Williams also returned to practice Thursday, but safety Jordan Pugh (concussion) and linebacker Omar Gaither (knee) remain out.
PHILLIPS LIGHTING UP: Jason Phillips is pumped up about his first NFL start this week at the weak side linebacker spot.
Phillips called himself an “effort guy” who likes to fly around and make plays.
“I’m doing my best to take advantage of this opportunity,” Phillips said. “I didn’t get much of a chance to play defense when I was in Baltimore.”
Phillips played nine games last year at Baltimore and saw some action in the second half of last week’s game against Atlanta.
I’ve always been a high-motor and downhill run player so that is what I will try to bring, filling gaps and trying to make tackles in the run game,” Phillips said. “I’m going to try to be the guy who is out there flying around and hitting everything I see.”
THE ROOKIE WALL: Coach Ron Rivera said he’ll reduce reps for rookie defensive tackles Sione Fua and Terrell McClain this Sunday sensing they have hit the rookie wall.
“You can see they’re getting a little worn down and we’re trying to take a few of the reps off of them,” Rivera said. “They’re used to playing 12 games maybe. Well this is the 11th game if you count the preseason.”
Rivera said that means more reps for veteran Ron Fields. Also, Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy might see more action at defensive tackle, Rivera said.