CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina cornerback Josh Norman expects he'll have Eli Manning's full attention Thursday night.
He said Manning probably won't be able to resist testing out an inexperienced rookie trying to cover Hakeem Nicks or Victor Cruz.
"I expect I'll have a target on my back, but I'm ready," Norman said. "I understand I'm in a new league and I really haven't done anything yet. So I feel like I have to do something."
The Panthers thought they might get a few starters out of this year's NFL draft, but Norman wasn't expected to be one of them — at least not right away.
Surprisingly, the fifth-round selection out of tiny Coastal Carolina has made a smooth transition to the NFL and unseated two-year starter Captain Munnerlyn as the No. 2 cornerback opposite Chris Gamble. Norman did it despite missing most of training camp with a strained hamstring.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott says Norman has shown "the game isn't too big for him."
Norman came into the team's rookie minicamp back in May telling everyone who'd listen he expected to start right away.
Few gave him a chance.
But after only a couple of days of practice, the confident Norman was challenging five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith — both verbally and physically — in practice, daring him to beat him.
"I want to be the best, so to be the best you have to challenge the best," Norman said.
He'll get one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL Thursday night.
Manning is coming off a 510-yard passing performance in a 41-34 win Sunday over Tampa Bay. Hicks, a Charlotte native, caught 10 passes for 199 yards and Cruz had 11 receptions for 179 yards. Both caught touchdown passes.
Manning said whether he throws Norman's way will depend on the coverage.
"If he's in one-on-one coverage that's something we might look at," Manning said.
Munnerlyn had started 23 games prior to this year, but has since been relegated mostly to the nickel duty in passing situations and special teams with the emergence of Norman. McDermott said he plans to platoon Norman and Munnerlyn this season.
"I can't say I'm happy about the situation because I'd be lying," Munnerlyn said. "I'm not happy, but anything I can do to help the team win."
McDermott said Norman grabbed his attention the first day of rookie minicamp. Norman hasn't stopped impressing him since.
When Norman returned to training camp after sitting out with a hamstring injury, Norman had five interceptions in one practice.
At Coastal Carolina Norman would regularly play in front of crowds of about 20,000. On Thursday night he'll play in front of a packed house of more than 72,000 with millions more watching at home on television.
"As a rookie, no matter where you come from, this is the NFL and it's a grown man's league," McDermott said. "He's coming from Coastal Carolina and he hasn't shied away from competition, whether it's been going against our own receivers (in practice) or going against Vincent Jackson the first week of the season or Marquis Colston this past week.
"He's really hung in there. He has a feel for the game and on top of that I love the fact that as a corner he's a willing tackler."
Never someone who lacks confidence in his own abilities, Norman seems up for Thursday night's challenge.
"You just play fast and everything else takes care of itself," Norman said. "Knowing what to do is big. I have guys who communicate things to me and when they do just being in the right spot is a real big thing."
For the 6-foot, 195-pound Norman, starting is one thing.
But he said he's not satisfied with that. He has loftier goals.
"That's just the first step," said the confident Norman. "I want to go to the playoffs. I want to be a Pro Bowler. I want to be Defensive Player of the Year. I have a lot of things I want to accomplish."
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