Chuck Burton
June 11, 2015

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Panthers rookie linebacker Shaq Thompson has gone from cramming for final exams to cramming to learn an NFL playbook.

Carolina's first-round draft pick returned to practice this week after missing most of the team's first three weeks of voluntary workouts while finishing up his classwork at the University of Washington.

NFL rules prohibit rookies from participating in NFL practices - rookie minicamp being the notable exemption - until they have completed their spring semester to prevent kids from dropping out of school early. Because Washington is on the quarter system, Thompson just finished this week.

That has put him behind everyone else, but the 21-year-old Thompson said he's ready to put in the extra time needed to catch up.

''It kind of (stunk) being out,'' Thompson said at Thursday's practice before being hurried inside so he could spend extra time with coaches. ''I really wanted to be out here, but at least I got two days of work in.''

Thompson didn't come to work this week completely unprepared.

Panthers linebackers coach Al Holcomb has been in steady communication with Thompson as he finished up his classwork. He's been relaying what the team is installing in practice and sending him plays through a tablet Thompson received during rookie minicamp.

Regardless, there's a big difference between studying defensive concepts on a computer and actually implementing them in practice.

''It's going to take time for him to catch up a little bit,'' said assistant coach Steve Wilks, who ran practice Thursday so that coach Ron Rivera could attend his daughter's graduation from UCLA. ''(But) you can see his athleticism out there, the way he's flying around. He's going to make a lot of plays for us this year.''

He certainly did at Washington, where he won the Paul Hornung Award given to the nation's most versatile athlete. He had six touchdowns last season - four on defense and two as a running back.

The Panthers drafted Thompson not to carry the ball, but rather to give them a third fast linebacker to play alongside 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. The hope is that he can step in right away and start, thus giving them more speed and a better matchup against quality pass-receiving tight ends like Seattle's Jimmy Graham.

He's also viewed as the long-term replacement for the 32-year-old Davis, who has battled back from three torn ACLs in his knee to play at a high level. It's a move that Davis fully endorsed.

''You have an opportunity to put a guy on your team right now that can eventually replace him that's as athletic, if not even more athletic, why wouldn't you take advantage of the opportunity?'' said Davis, who announced the team's pick at the podium during April's NFL draft.

With wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin also returning to work this week following a strained hamstring, the Panthers now have their last two first-round picks back on the field.

Thompson said he was tempted to set aside studying for his three final exams and focus on learning the Panthers' playbook, but said ''school comes first.''

Thompson still has one year left of school, but he's putting his degree on hold so he can focus on football. He turned in his final paper on police brutality on Tuesday and was able to head to Charlotte for practice.

''I think I did well,'' Thompson said of his finals. ''I know I did well.''

Thompson worked with the reserves during practice as he slowly works his way back in.

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