SPARTANBURG — Closing in on completing the first week of training camp, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Thursday he feels his team is ahead of schedule as it works toward an Aug. 11 exhibition opener against the Houston Texans.
“You’re starting to see our offensive line solidify who they are as a group,” Rivera said. “It’s pretty much the same group with the exception of the left guard position. That group is starting to rally around (rookie Amini) Silatolu. He’s done a nice job and the guys working next to him, (Ryan) Kalil and (Jordan) Gross, are two veteran guys that know how to work with young players.
“I’m really pleased with what we’re getting from the running back position. I think there’s a great combination there along with our quarterbacks, and those groups have been significantly ahead of where they were last year.”
Rivera said he’s very pleased with the defense, particularly the health of the linebackers and the contributions of rookie linemen Nate Chandler and Frank Alexander. He gently challenged end Charles Johnson, also.
“Charles Johnson is very consistent right now but we need him to take it to another level,” Rivera said. “He’s doing the things we want him to do, but we want him to do more. That’s why we have him here.”
Rivera also pointed to cornerback Chris Gamble as another player having a strong start to training camp. He said Gamble, who left one practice early, sometimes gets too worked up to the point of making himself sick. He’s done well in recent practices, Rivera said.
“We’ve got a ways to go still. As a unit, we’re not where we want to be,” he said.
CORNER HELP: With a couple of their young cornerbacks nursing injuries, the Panthers signed Nate Ness to add depth. Ness, 25, has been on the active roster of four teams in three seasons, and appeared in four games with St. Louis last season.
He originally signed with a Cleveland as an undrafted free agent out of Arizona in 2009.
BEING CAREFUL: Linebacker Thomas Davis continues to be sidelined with a calf injury that has slowed his return to practice after he missed last season with a third straight knee injury.
“The calf has been bothering him a little bit,” Rivera said. “It is the calf on the repaired knee so we want to be cautious with that. We just want to make sure there is nothing else that we need to be concerned with.”
GETTING THEIR KICKS: Punters Nick Harris and Brad Nortman are in tight duel to determine who will win the punting job previously held by Jason Baker.
Nortman is a rookie from Wisconsin whom the Panthers drafted in April. Harris is a 12-year NFL veteran.
Rivera said it’s too early to give either punter an edge in a competition that’s likely to continue throughout the four-game exhibition schedule.
“We have one punter averaging about 44 yards a kick and the other guy is averaging about 46. We have one guy averaging a little over 4.5 hang time and the other is right around 4.65. We have a good battle going on right now,” Rivera said, declining to specify which punter is doing what.
He said both punters will be ready during practice and exhibitions, with all punts being charted.
“You want it settled as early as possible. That way you can start moving forward and get that guy his reps,” Rivera said.
FAN FEST SCHEDULE: A busy day of activities is scheduled at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday for the annual Fan Fest.
It will begin with a 7:30 a.m. 5K run starting from the East Gate at the stadium. Registration is still open and can be found at www.runforyourlife.com.
At 2 p.m., the Catwalk area will open at the stadium with face painting, interactive games and visits by the TopCats and Sir Purr.
Passing and kicking competitions for kids 15 and under will begin at 2:30 p.m. on the field, with on-field entertainment to follow. Practice will begin at 4 p.m. and is free to the public.
• So the players will be fresh for Fan Fest on Saturday, Rivera said they will not practice in pads Friday. After originally setting a 6 p.m. Friday practice, the Panthers will work out instead at 3:30 p.m. in shorts and jerseys. They will treat the Fan Fest practice like a full training camp practice.
• Two players who need strong performances in training camp got nice endorsements from Rivera. He said defensive end Eric Norwood has “done a really nice job for us” and wide receiver Armanti Edwards has had “an outstanding camp.”
• Quarterback Cam Newton gets coached just like everyone else. After he tried to force a pass into coverage while throwing across his body, Newton heard offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski bark, “Come on, Cam.” Newton listened to what Chudzinski had to say and nodded in acknowledgement.
• Offensive tackle Jordan Gross was the beneficiary of a night off Thursday. Throughout practice, Rivera has given different veterans a break from workouts when he feels it’s needed.
• Maybe it was the humidity, maybe it was the fourth day in pads, but the pace seemed slower, particularly on the offensive side. Several receivers dropped passes, and the execution was not always crisp.
• Rookie receiver Joe Adams, 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, struggled to gain separation in one of his few reps at receiver. But he is viewed as a lock to make the team as a punt returner.
• Newton lightened the mood late in practice by pleading with one of the replacement officials – loudly and jokingly – for a pass interference call in the end zone. Newton hadn’t even thrown the pass.
• Speaking of the officials, the crew was a mishmash from various conferences, most of them non-BCS conferences. At least that’s what we were told. When the referee was asked what conference the crew was from, he said: “The NFL.” At least until there’s a labor agreement between the league and its usual officials.
• Kicker Justin Medlock made five of six field goal attempts Thursday night, including two from 53 yards.
THREE QUESTIONS WITH …
Running back Jonathan Stewart
Q: How has camp gone for you and the backfield with the addition of Mike Tolbert?
It’s been going real good. With the addition of him, I think the defense is definitely over there cringing a bit.
Seeing that wide body of his … he already has that low center of gravity but he has that size to plug holes and that’s what we want. We get that out of him and we get his catching ability and running ability out of the backfield, and it just expands the things we can do with our offensive game.
Q: How has your role changed from last year going into this year?
I think I’m just more developed as a player. I was able to learn more out of the passing aspect of the offense. Just being a part of that in the last year, it just gave me another aspect to my game and it’s been cool. Being able to catch balls in space, that’s what you want as a running back is space.
Q: With Tolbert in the act, have you and DeAngelo Williams come up with a new dance in the end zone?
Ha ha. Not really, not yet. We’ll probably figure something out. I think Tolbert has his own dance in the end zone, so we’re excited to see that.
GETTING TO KNOW…
Safety Reggie Smith
Height: 6-1 Weight: 205
NFL experience: Smith was a third-round draft choice by the San Francisco Giants in 2008 and played four seasons for the 49ers with two career interceptions. He was signed as a free agent by the Panthers in April.
The scoop: Smith is one of the players the Panthers added to strengthen their special teams. He had 14 special teams tackles in 2010 and eight last year (including the postseason) for the 49ers.
Bet you didn’t know … He left Oklahoma after his junior season with 166 tackles and eight interceptions. He was a first-team All-Big 12 performer.
Staff writer Jonathan James contributed to this article.