Carolina Panthers: Camp Observations

SPARTANBURG, SC – The Carolina Panthers’ training camp is like every other NFL camp in that everyone feels they will not only compete, but win their division, conference and Super Bowl. As I pointed out in my last column (Friday, July 26), the Panthers have their issues…and after just the first weekend, they are addressing them quickly.

A kicker's day ends early...Brad Nortman, the incumbent punter stands next to Jordan Gay, a free agent battling Nortman for the spot.

A kicker’s day ends early…Brad Nortman, the incumbent punter stands next to Jordan Gay, a free agent battling Nortman for the spot.

Last year, I wrote several articles about the battles going on for the placekicking and punting slots. Second-year punter, Brad Nortman, was the first player to greet me on the field. Nortman had a nice rookie season, and is much more relaxed this season. “I know how things work now and it’s a lot easier for me understanding the schedule.” As for his take on the Panthers, the Wisconsin-native said, “I’m looking forward to a great season and I think we can compete with anyone in the conference. If we can get healthy (the Panthers have several players not practicing due to injuries already) and stay healthy, that’s the key.”

Veteran linebacker, Jon Beason, who signed a restructured contract (to help the team), is not practicing. He said it’s “quite possible” he won’t practice during camp following microfracture surgery on his right knee during the offseason.

His goal is to be ready for the regular season opener against Seattle, and will have to manage his pain. “So I’m going to have good days and bad days. But you get it calmed down, you get it feeling food throughout the week and then by Sunday you feel pretty good. You go out there and wear on it, bang on it, then start over on Sunday.”

Due to the emergence of second-year linebacker Luke Kuechly, Beason has moved to the weak-side linebacker position. Kuechly is a fan favorite after his outstanding rookie campaign.

Running back Jonathan Stewart was placed on the PUP (physically unable to play) list following surgeries on both ankles during the offseason. He said the left ankle has healed well while the right one is “still an issue.”

“It’s real difficult for the fact that you don’t want to be sitting, standing around during training camp watching guys get reps,” he said. “You got to take things from the mental perspective because that’s all you can really do when you’re limited. And just missing out on being part of the team, sometimes you feel left out when you’re not participating. Those are things I’ve dealt with. We’ve got a good team and a good group of guys that rally around each other, so I’m very fortunate.”

His plan, like Beason’s, is to be ready for Week One against Seattle, but only time will tell.

Panther Quarterback Cam Newton seen here entering Gibbs Stadium for Friday's opening practice, was not smiling. This is a rare sight, especially at camp, and indicated he is taking things more seriously than ever.

Panther Quarterback Cam Newton seen here entering Gibbs Stadium for Friday’s opening practice, was not smiling. This is a rare sight, especially at camp, and indicated he is taking things more seriously than ever.

As for Cam Newton and his leadership questions, I noticed he was serious about his work over the weekend. Not as much smiling and joking around as in the past. If he can continue on the path he took in his last four games of the 2012-13 season, the Panthers’ QB will answer those leadership questions.

His reaction to Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan’s new $100 million contract: “I didn’t think anything. Good for him, but nothing more than that. The only thing that’s on my mind right now is a three-letter word. I think y’all know what that three-letter word is,” Newton said, referring to his desire to win.

Newton signed a guaranteed four-year, $22 million deal in 2011 that includes a club option for a fifth year.

Just three of the wide-bodies in camp - Linden Gaydosh (98), Casey Walker (74) and Kawann Short (68). Take up space...this seems to be an underlying theme this year.

Just three of the wide-bodies in camp – Linden Gaydosh (98), Casey Walker (74) and Kawann Short (68). Take up space…this seems to be an underlying theme this year.

The position battles have just begun in camp, and will continue for another four weeks. One thing you notice is how many wide-bodies the Panthers have in camp. These guys will take up space. Seeing first-round draft selection defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (6’2″, 315 lbs.) standing next to now-injured fourth-rounder,  guard Edmund Kugbila (6’4″, 325 lbs.) standing next to free agent Linden Gaydosh (6’3″, 315 lbs.), standing next to second-round selection defensive tackle Kawann Short (6’3″, 310 lbs.) is impressive. Lotulelei  and Short could start while Kugbila needs to get healthy. Gaydosh is a long-shot, but is moving well.

Other observations from camp this weekend:

  • Due to wet practice fields at Wofford College, the team continues to practice in Gibbs Stadium. Good for the fans who come out, but strategically more difficult for the coaching staff and players due to the limited space.
  • Local favorite, Brenton Bersin, a free agent from Wofford College, made a spectacular diving catch during Friday’s practice, which resulted in an eruption of noise from the fans.
  • One player I am rooting for to play a big role for the Panthers is Oregon running back Kenjon Barner (5’9″, 190 pounds). First of all, I am bigger than the speedy former Duck, and can look him in the eye. Seems like a nice kid. He is competing with a backfield that is heavy on veterans (DeAngelo Williams, Stewart and Mike Tolbert), but he has something special to offer. Anyone who watched Chip Kelly’s quick-paced offense saw Barner run and run fast. In camp on Friday, Panther coach Ron Rivera said, “He made a cut that was pretty impressive. Right now we haven’t put the things in that we feel will be really conducive to him, but we have seen his ability to catch the ball, his ability to put stress on linebackers when they’re in coverage and I do like his quickness. The biggest questions will be his protections, his ability to step up and block.” I am rooting for the kid to succeed!

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