Spartanburg, SC – The Carolina Panthers officially opened training camp Saturday evening in front of 12,000 friends, family and fans at Gibbs Stadium on the Wofford College campus. On what was dubbed Back to Football night, complete with rock bands, the Top Caps cheerleaders, Sir Purr and plenty of concessions, everyone seemed pleased with the practice.
Last season’s Rookie of the Year, QB Cam Newton pleased the crowd, passing and running easily. Just walking onto the field brought a tremendous roar from the fans. No doubt, he is the face of this team and, with the success he had last year as a rookie, the fans are 100% sold on him. But he really made their night by throwing a ball into the stands late in practice.
Third-string QB Jimmy Clausen threw some very nice deep balls and Newton’s back-up, Derek Anderson ran the offense like a veteran.
Rookie linebacker (first round pick) Luke Kuechly made an interception…and showed a nose for the ball. Second round pick Amini Silatolu takes up a lot of space on the offensive line, something that can only make Newton very happy.
I spent time with the kickers, since this is one area the Panthers really need to improve upon. Rookie punter Brad Nortman boomed some punts and showed why he had a reputation as a terrific directional kicker. Working on the back practice fields before heading to the stadium, Nortman worked against the wind, kicking to spots. The ball rockets off his foot and gains altitude very quickly.
The placekicking part of the game could be improved…and veteran Olindo Mare knows this. Justin Medlock was brought into camp to give Mare competition and with Medlock’s reputation gained working in the Canadian Football League, this will be one to watch.
It didn’t help when Mare missed a 43 yard field goal, hitting the right upright. The fans booed. Brutal…it’s the first practice…but they remember last season’s crucial misses.
It was great spending time with Jerry Richardson, the Panthers owner. He is beloved by the fans who begged him to sign a huge copy of the Super Bowl Promise ad (as I will call it) run in the Charlotte Observer last week. The ad, paid for and written by center Ryan Kalil, has everyone talking. “I Believe” is what people are calling it…and Richardson was more than happy to sign it.
WR Steve Smith, sporting a beard, was in good spirits. He was even playful when catching a ball over the middle in front of Captain Munnerlyn, then getting run out-of-bounds by Munnerlyn and giving the Captain a shot at the end…which was returned. All in good fun.
TE Greg Olsen should be the main target now that Jeremy Shockey is no longer a Panther. And he will be a great target for balls thrown his way. He showed nice, soft hands.
On the defensive side of the ball, it was good seeing LB Jon Beason back in action. Kuechly looked very good and seemed to be enjoying himself. The defense made four interceptions during practice and Kuechly, showing versatility, even ran a few plays on the punt team.
The coaches felt it was a great atmosphere and were very pleased with Olsen’s showing, as well as the running backs ability to slip past the defensive line. I was standing next to Coach Ron Rivera for much of the practice and he and I were just shaking our heads over the defensive line being offside, just barely, on many plays. Trying to get an edge on Cam, I guess. He said the young guys need to develop quickly and step up.
Nortman told me he was glad the first practice was behind him and felt it was a good one (it was). He is looking forward to continuing to work hard, taking one step at a time, to improve upon his excellent collegiate numbers he amassed while at Wisconsin.
CELEBRITIES IN ATTENDANCE: I was able to catch up with Stephen and Seth Curry, the basketball players who grew up in the Charlotte area. Stephen and I talked about the NBA and the San Francisco Bay area experience, trading restaurant tips. He said the Warriors are getting a new arena and they should move into it for the 2017-18 season…but the NBA being what it is, he is not getting too excited about playing there. “You never know what will happen…the NBA moves quickly and players move around so much.” Seth will be a senior at Duke this coming season, and is looking forward to the year.