CHARLOTTE -- In the big picture, the Carolina Panthers will obviously miss middle linebacker Dan Morgan. But the way rookie Jon Beason is playing, it's almost as if Morgan's still around.
Defensive end Mike Rucker marveled at Beason's ability to pick up the spot from his mentor and not miss a beat, making a seamless transition from his original weakside spot after four games. It's not a coincidence the Panthers' defensive up-tick happened the same time, as the rookie's shown a precocious knack for the spot they wanted him to play a few years from now.
Rucker singled out his ability to call the defense against the no-huddle looks Indianapolis threw his way, saying Beason ran it the way Morgan always had.
"When you put tape on, you see the same style of play," Rucker said. "Fast to the ball, and when they're coming, they're coming with authority. They're smart, they pick up the defense, they know the defense.
"It'll be fun to watch him over the years to come and see how he progresses. It'll be neat to sit back and watch him."
Since it's anything but a sure thing the Panthers would bring Morgan back next year, the spot should belong to Beason as long as he's around.
The numbers back up his progress, as he's led the team in tackles five games already this season and he leads the season list by a mile (67-51 over safety Deke Cooper). He's also logged four pass breakups and a fumble recovery since moving inside, upping his tackle average from 6.5 to 10.3.
The 22-year-old shows the same confidence in interviews he's shown in the huddle, deflecting the notion that a torch has been passed. A few weeks ago, when Morgan's return was still a possibility, Beason said he'd happily move back outside to accommodate him.
"I can't look at it like that," he said of the transition. "I realize to play the middle in this defense, I have to be ready. These guys are depending on me, and I have to take the approach that I can't let them down. I just know that if I leave it all on the field and play all-out, that things usually work out."
His teammates seem impressed so far.
When asked if he had seen any jitters from the rookie so far, Rucker shook his head and said: "Not at all ... not at all."
"I think he's responded great to the situation he's been put in," safety Chris Harris said. "He got thrown into the fire, never played Mike here, and to get in there and do what he's done, control the huddle, make the calls as a rookie ... he's done an outstanding job.
"You'd think the guy would be a little nervous back there, never having run the show before as a rookie in the NFL, and he's taken it in stride. I'm excited about him in there."
Coach John Fox said he appreciated Beason's willingness to switch spots when asked, saying he's shown he could do either.
"Jon Beason is the kind of guy who's going to do what's best for the team," Fox said. "If it involved moving, he would have been fine with that. I think it's helpful for all of us that he gets to stay at the middle backer, and we're not asking him to do another duty as far as another spot.
"With most positions as you go through, you're trying to do what's best for the team and right now what's best for the team is him in the middle."
Others on the outside are taking notice as well.
Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman mentioned Beason's name in the same paragraph as Miami's Zach Thomas in discussing his midseason All-Pro middle linebacker selection, saying "I keep coming back to surprising rookie Jon Beason."
Atlanta coach Bobby Petrino said he likely would agree, saying he adjusted his game plans at Louisville to account for Beason in 2004, when the Panthers' linebacker was a redshirt freshman at Miami.
"What they did, when they went nickel (package), they took him out of the game," Petrino said. "So we tried to keep them in nickel as much as we could so he was standing on the sidelines watching us.
"He's just a very impressive football player. Not only as a linebacker, but he was their best special teams player too."
Beason laughed and said he had a bit of a grudge from forcing him out of that game, in which he had no tackles.
"I'm highly upset with him," Beason joked. "That was early in my career, and there were a lot of experienced guys around me, and I hadn't quite cracked all the sub packages. It was tough, but the next time we played him, he couldn't do that to me.
"With all his offensive schemes though, that guy is a genius. I know he's going to attack me this week, so it should be fun."
The biggest difference from that first meeting, though, is that Beason will rarely come off the field this time.
There's no avoiding him now, and he's only getting better.
"I think each week he gets stronger," Rucker said. "That's a lot on his shoulders, when he first came in. It's good to see a young guy grow like that and still be able to play fast."