Postcard from camp: Panthers
Maake Kemoeatu was a big loss to the Panthers' already thin defensive line
Running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart will share the ball again
Defensive end Everette Brown, from Florida State, will be a rookie to watch
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Damon Hack had to say about the Panthers' camp in Spartanburg, S.C. For an archive of all the camp postcards, click here.
Setting the Scene
Driving through the Carolinas on a bright-blue, low-humidity day is about as good as it gets. I've made the drive a dozen times, usually on the way to Augusta National or Quail Hollow, but never to Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C.
Wofford has hosted the Carolina Panthers for training camp since 1995, and it's been a good match. Why Wofford? For starters, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is a proud alum (as is Fisher DeBerry, the former head coach at Air Force). For another, the campus is intimate and easily navigable. Did you know that Wofford is the smallest college in the nation to play NCAA Division 1-AA football? The Terriers knock helmets in the Southern Conference. Every summer, Wofford welcomes the NFC South's Panthers.
1. The Panthers boast two of the stronger offensive and defensive lines in the NFL, but each unit sorely lacks depth. That was made clear when defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu tore his right Achilles tendon on the Panthers first day of training camp. The best option at replacing Kemoeatu is Nick Hayden, a second-year defensive tackle from Wisconsin who played in just two games last season and recorded three tackles. New defensive coordinator Ron Meeks might also need instant production from rookie Corvey Irvin, the team's third-round pick out of Georgia.
Carolina has similar depth issues behind its starting offensive line, a unit that can't afford a catastrophic injury.
2. Coach John Fox will continue to alternate running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to keep them healthy, fresh and productive for the long haul. Whether it was Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster in the past or Williams and Stewart in the present, Fox's punishing style lends itself to running backs splitting time to maximize their effectiveness.
A year ago, Williams and Stewart combined to rush for 30 touchdowns and 2,351 yards. Their maturity -- and a powerful offensive line -- should lead to similar numbers in 2009.
"I've never had a problem sharing the load," Williams said. "If we keep winning, do it."
3. Steve Smith has the strongest handshake I've ever gripped. Seriously. For years, I've marveled at Smith's ability to out-muscle taller, stronger defensive backs and come down with the football while standing only 5-foot-9. Then I met him for the first time at Panthers camp, shook his hand, and was happy to see that my fingers were still intact after he let go. I've got big mitts, but Smith's hand felt like a vice grip.
Remember the scene from Superman II, when the Man of Steel crumples General Zod's fingers near the end of the movie? Smith easily could have done that to me.
New Face, New Place
Meeks replaced Mike Trgovac as Fox's defensive coordinator, which means the Panthers defense will play more Cover 2 than in years past. When Meeks was in Indianapolis with Tony Dungy, the pair preferred smaller, quicker defenders who could get to the quarterback and run all over the field. Meeks is bringing that philosophy to Carolina, and his players are already responding to his call. Many of them reported to camp lighter than they had in years.
"Where I came from, we relied on guys that were undersized, could control the running game, quick playmakers," Meeks said. "A lot of the guys came in under weight. That's a good thing."
The Panthers shipped next year's first-round pick to San Francisco so they could draft defensive end Everette Brown. In Meeks's system, Brown will be asked to bring heat off the edge, which was his greatest strength at Florida State. With offenses forced to deal with Julius Peppers, Brown has a chance to surprise some people. The Panthers expect nothing less.
"That's why they felt he was worthy of taking him where they did," Meeks said of the organization's decision to draft the 6-1, 260-pound Brown 43rd overall. "He's a little bit in the same mold of [Colts DE] Robert Mathis."
The name is listed on Page 22 of the Carolina Panthers media guide, and so is his picture: Sam Mills III, defensive quality control.
It's been four years since his father, the former Saints and Panthers linebacker Sam Mills Jr., died of intestinal cancer, and it is neat to see that the son has continued in the family business. When Sam Mills Jr. was a linebacker with the Panthers, his son was a ball boy. These days, the ball boy is a man, breaking down tape, assisting in game preparation and helping to plan the defensive playbook. Like his father, Sam Mills III played football at Montclair State College in Montclair, N.J. Now, as a coach, he carries on his father's legacy.
1. Jake Delhomme said he had friends and family members calling him for a week after his six-turnover day against Arizona in the playoffs. He got over the loss much quicker. He's been animated in camp, pumping up his teammates and imploring them to focus and work hard. He expects a different ending to the 2009 season.
3. What is it about assistant coaches channeling their inner Billy Blanks? Pittsburgh's Dick LeBeau does pushups at practice. Meeks runs around in the secondary. "He's doing backpedaling drills," Panthers safety Chris Harris said of Meeks. "A lot of energy. I think guys will respond."
4. Speaking of the Steelers, their brutal schedule hardened them for a successful Super Bowl run. Carolina has a similarly tough schedule in 2009, including tilts with New England, Philadelphia, Dallas and the New York Giants.
5. Williams has a future as a broadcaster if he wants it. He's funny, engaging and to the point. For one, he doesn't post on Twitter. Why not? "It's text messaging with people you don't know. It doesn't make any sense."
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