CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman may not be a household name right now.
Assistant coach Steve Wilks predicts that's about the change.
"He's on the verge of being one of the top corners in the National Football League," said Wilks, who also serves as Carolina's defensive backs coach.
Norman has solidified his spot as the shutdown cornerback on one of the league's best defensive units. The 6-foot, 195-pound Norman is coming off a breakout season in 2014, showing an ability to keep receivers like Julio Jones and Jeremy Maclin in check.
And Wilks said Norman is only just beginning to tap into his potential.
The fourth-year cornerback continues to turn heads in practice with his athleticism and grit. Last week Norman made a pass breakup that left Wilks shaking his head in amazement.
The Panthers were in a zone defense when wide receiver Corey Brown broke loose on a post route down the field. Cam Newton appeared to have Brown locked in for an easy score before the speedy Norman raced over to the play and dove headfirst to break up the pass.
"I have never seen anyone make that play in my 10 years as a coach," Wilks said.
It's that type of fearlessness Norman has become known for in Carolina.
The reality is Norman has always had the talent, but now he's starting to play within the structure of coordinator Sean McDermott's defense rather than freelance on his own.
"He has gotten to the point where he understands the details of the game," Wilks said. "He's being a student of the game and not trying to do things outside of our defense."
Young, brash and confident, Norman goes into every game thinking he's the best cornerback in the league. So Wilks' comments about being one of the best cornerbacks in the league don't faze him.
"To be honest with you, I have felt that way since day one," said Norman, a fifth-round draft pick out of Coastal Carolina.
But there were times his confidence was tested.
He burst on to the scene with a stellar training camp as a rookie, once intercepting five passes in a single practice.
He started 12 games as a rookie before being benched following a 27-21 loss at Kansas City in which he surrendered two touchdown passes. It took a while for coaches to regain confidence in Norman, and he rarely played at all during his second season in Carolina.
He'd bounce back last season, recovering from an early season concussion to become a full-time starter again, this time drawing the opponent's best receiver on a weekly basis.
He helped limit Maclin to three catches for 38 yards and no touchdown and Jones to six catches for 59 yards and no TDs in back-to-back weeks. In a rematch with Jones in Week 17, Norman limited the Falcons star to four catches for 58 yards to help the Panthers clinch the NFC South.
Norman finished last season with 36 tackles, 11 pass breakups and two interceptions and firmly established himself as a cornerback to watch heading into 2015.
He also gained a new perspective.
"Getting benched was the most humbling experience of my life," Norman said. "It was a gut punch. I came off having a bunch of interceptions in the preseason (as a rookie) and then to have that punch in the gut, like wow. It was like, 'Sit down.'"
The Panthers have come to learn you have to take the good with the bad with Norman. He plays with emotion, which can often lead to silly mistakes.
He was flagged for taunting on key third down play in a loss to Minnesota last season that allowed the Vikings to keep a key drive alive.
Norman also made an incredible leaping interception against Cleveland's Brian Hoyer on deep pass, got to his feet and returned the ball 35 yards before fumbling it back over to the Browns after carrying it loosely with one hand away from his body.
"With Josh, everything is out of control," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "He plays with his hair on fire, which is who he is."
But Rivera doesn't necessarily want him to change.
He said Norman's aggressiveness, energy and confidence outweigh some of the mistakes he makes. And Norman's confidence seems to be growing along with the trust coaches are now showing in him.
"Hey, it's been night and day watching him grow the last three years," Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said. "He came in his first year and the talent jumped out at you. His ball skills, they're unmatched with some of the things that he can do. When you put together that with the mental side of the game, he can become a special player."