Sorensen: Summer might as well end in Spartanburg

July 21, 2012 

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Panthers' Cam Newton (1) throws downfield during Day 3 of Panthers minicamp at Bank of America Stadium on June 14, 2012. David T. Foster III-dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

DAVID T. FOSTER III — dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

The calendar says summer ends Sept. 21. The calendar lies. Summer ends Friday, when the Carolina Panthers report to training camp.

I go every year. I volunteer. I even have a nickname: He Who Goes to Spartanburg in July and August by Choice.

This year many of you apparently will join me. For the first time, at least at the beginning of camp, I can’t get into the Spartanburg hotel in which I usually stay.

Perhaps Spartanburg is hosting a large convention or concert. Perhaps a new Krispy Kreme has opened. Perhaps fans figure that this is the season, finally, that Carolina contends.

I got a call from a friend who is a fan of Oakland and he’s convinced the Raiders will be unstoppable. I haven’t heard him so optimistic since 2011.

The beauty of the NFL is that the power structure changes annually. Who saw San Francisco emerging last season?

The Panthers won two games in 2010 and six in 2011. If they improve by four victories again they’re probably in the playoffs.

I’m not saying they’ll win 10 games. I have no idea. Anybody who makes a prediction before camp is merely guessing.

You see things in Spartanburg. The last time Carolina made the playoffs was 2008 and if you were a camp regular you weren’t surprised. Veterans and newcomers came together seamlessly. Players knew when they hit I-85 to return to Charlotte that they had something.

As much as I like camp, I don’t know if going on the road is necessary. The concept comes from a long ago time before mini-camp and voluntary-mandatory camp and year-round training.

Couldn’t players attain as much if, instead of sleeping in Wofford dormitories where there’s always a vacancy in the summer, they stayed home?

Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, a Wofford graduate, and general manager Marty Hurney insist that Spartanburg offers advantages Charlotte does not.

Distractions are reduced if not eliminated, and players are compelled to get to know one another. They see each together in dorms, the cafeteria, the student union and on the field. By Aug. 15, when camp breaks, they theoretically are a team.

But it’s individual stories I’m most curious about.

The first is offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. Despite being new last season and despite working with a rookie quarterback, Chudzinski was the most innovative play-caller in Panthers’ history. In other words, he was more likely to draw a play in the dirt than run a draw.

Neither he nor Cam Newton is new anymore. The introductory season is complete. Chudzinski will disdain convention, send players places they’ve never been and do things that will work or fail spectacularly.

Wouldn’t you love to see the playbook?

The second is linebacker Thomas Davis. He is the rare player everybody likes – teammates, management, media and normal people. He’s ripped up his right knee three times in less than two years.

A natural leader and a tremendous athlete, he changes the defense when healthy, helps put it in position to attack. Nobody is supposed to come back from three serious injuries to the same knee. But to watch sports is to witness the improbable. Why not see it again?

The third is Coastal Carolina’s Mike Tolbert and Josh Norman.

Norman, a cornerback whom the Panthers drafted in the fifth round, was available so late only because of a slow time in the 40-yard dash. He played fast in the mini-camps. He was outstanding. He’s a good talker, too. He’s confident.

Tolbert, a free-agent from San Diego, can block, catch and run. Stand next to him. A fullback, he’s 5-foot-9 and 243 pounds, as wide as he is tall. He’s a player you tackle because you have to, not because you want to.

Summer is my favorite time of year, and I’m not ready for it to end.

But if it has to, it might as well end in Spartanburg.

Maybe I’ll see you there.

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