SPARTANBURG — The first surprise of Carolina Panthers training camp came at the expense of guard Geoff Hangartner, who woke up Thursday morning to a text from coach Ron Rivera, telling him to come see him.
“That’s never good news,” left tackle Jordan Gross said.
Rivera told Hangartner he was being released, just two days after first-year general manager Dave Gettleman referred to Hangartner as part of the team’s core. The move threw open a position battle at right guard that was already considered to be one of the key competitions.
Hangartner’s release creates an opportunity for fourth-round pick Edmund Kugbila, utility lineman Garry Williams or a free agent to be named. Former Panthers offensive lineman Travelle Wharton worked out for Carolina last month, although league sources said no deal was imminent.
Hangartner, who played six seasons in two stints with the Panthers, was due to make $1.575 million in the second year of a three-year deal. Carolina freed up approximately $950,000 by releasing him, but the move was more about productivity than money.
The Panthers did not announce a corresponding roster move, although Rivera said they are not looking to bring in a free agent to be the starter.
Rivera said the play of three young players – Williams, Kugbila and Hayworth Hicks – convinced the Panthers to let Hangartner go.
“I think there’s some potential there. We talked about it as a staff. We talked about it with Dave and our scouts, thinking that these young guys are developing into the players that we think they can be,” Rivera said. “Also, we wanted to be fair to Geoff.”
By releasing Hangartner now, Rivera said it gives him a chance to hook on with another team. The timing caught Hangartner, a nine-year veteran, off guard.
“I knew there was competition in camp and I was going to have to have a good camp,” he said when reached in Charlotte. “But I definitely didn’t see getting released at this time.”
Hangartner admitted he struggled in 2012, when he shifted from guard to center in Week 6 after Ryan Kalil was lost to a season-ending foot injury.
“I didn’t have my best year last year,” Hangartner said. “But I definitely was a little blindsided by the move because I can play center and guard.”
Williams, a five-year veteran who had nine starts last season, worked with the first team Thursday. He was slated to be the starter at right guard in 2011 before he broke his ankle in a preseason game.
Williams’ injury prompted the Panthers to bring Hangartner back for a second stint.
Kugbila, a 6-foot-4, 325-pounder from Division II Valdosta State, had a sore knee that sidelined him for organized team activities and minicamp. He pulled his hamstring last week during the first practice at Wofford and hasn’t practiced since.
Rivera did not give a timetable for Kugbila’s return.
“It’s a little bit on faith,” Rivera said. “But at the same time Garry Williams has done a great job. Two years ago, Garry was going to be our starting guard until he broke the ankle. He seems to be back in shape, playing the way that he did where we thought he could be a starting guard.”
Left guard Amini Silatolu, who made the jump from Division II last year, encouraged Kugbila to keep studying.
“Even though he’s injured right now, I just told him stay on top of everything,” Silatolu said. “Stay on top of the playbook and make sure you’re ready by the time you’re healthy. I’m sure he’ll do that.”
Gross and Hangartner were entering their seventh season as teammates, while Gross, Hangartner and Kalil had played together four seasons. The three went in together on a golf cart they rode around Wofford’s campus and remained close off the field.
“When you lose a friend it’s tough,” Gross said. “But you just hope the management knows what they’re doing and it’s for the better and it’ll make us a better team. So that’s really what you have to focus on.”
“Whenever you see somebody leave, especially late in your career, you know you probably won’t play with him anymore,” Gross added. “So that’s a little bit tough. The friendships go beyond the football field. It’s sad, but we’ll be OK.”
Hangartner, 31, said he planned to “take a deep breath” and evaluate what’s next. A former Texas A&M standout, he said he believes he has a few good years left.
“As bummed as I am about the way things ended for me, I have no hard feelings,” he said. “I loved playing here. I’ll look back with nothing but good memories of my time in Charlotte.”