SPARTANBURG — For the first two weeks of training camp, the Carolina Panthers public relations staff paraded the team’s top players through the interview room in Wofford’s student center.
And for two weeks, defensive end Charles Johnson managed to avoid it.
Johnson is always friendly and personable when he talks with reporters. He’s just not big on drawing attention to himself.
The most media exposure Johnson received this summer did not come from a sports outlet, but from Dub magazine, a publication covering custom car culture that featured Johnson and his vehicles.
“I just keep my head down and keep grinding,” Johnson said Wednesday. “I don’t feel like there’s anything necessary to say until you get those wins going.”
That work-first-talk-last philosophy has served Johnson well.
In the two years since signing the most lucrative contract in Panthers history, Johnson has averaged double-digit sacks while emerging as a disruptive force on a defensive line that looks to be one of the team’s strengths.
But Johnson wants to improve. He gained five pounds to help him become more stout against the run, and has been staying after most camp practices to work with a big elastic band in a drill to quicken his first step.
“I just think he’s a hungry guy,” Panthers defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said. “He’s a proud guy, and he comes out and works every day. You see a lot of situations where guys get the big deal and kind of shut down. He wants to win as much as I do.”
Johnson signed a six-year, $76 million extension in 2011 that was the richest ever given to a Panthers player. After recording nine sacks in 2011, Johnson finished with 12.5 sacks last season and was second in the NFL with seven forced fumbles (Chicago cornerback Charles Tillman had 10).
Johnson, the Panthers’ 2007 third-round pick from Georgia, teamed with end Greg Hardy (11 sacks) for the second-highest total by a sack tandem in team history.
But Johnson isn’t satisfied.
“I’m working on stopping the run better. I looked at film (from) last year, and I didn’t stop the run like I wanted to,” said Johnson, who is up to 289 pounds. “I gained a little weight and just tried to tone it up a little bit.”
Despite a team-record 3.5 sacks in a Week 4 loss last year at Atlanta, Johnson regrets not getting more of a rush on Matt Ryan before the Falcons quarterback completed a 59-yard pass to Roddy White in the final minute of Atlanta’s 30-27 comeback victory.
“I kind of lined up inside. I should have known how many seconds were left on the clock,” he said. “I should have lined up outside where I could get a better pass rush and maybe I could have affected that play.”
Johnson affected plenty of others. His 23 quarterback pressures tied Hardy for the team lead, and his seven forced fumbles matched the second-most in team history.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera believes adding defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, the team’s first- and second-round picks, will help Johnson.
Johnson, 27, likes what he’s seen from the defensive front so far, but understands it’s early.
“It’s exciting to see how we play out at practice. We’ve got a lot of potential. That’s a bad word to use,” Johnson said. “But we can see that we can be a good defensive line. It’s all about going out there and applying it and jelling together.”
After a recent practice, Rivera watched and smiled as Johnson worked with the elastic band with defensive line coach Eric Washington on an adjacent field. Rivera calls Johnson a well-rounded end.
“I think sometimes those guys are hard to find,” Rivera said. “You got guys who are big, heavy stout guys and you got guys who just come off the edge, and he’s seems to be a guy who can do both.”
Despite his production, Johnson has yet to make a Pro Bowl. If he and Hardy continue to rack up sacks, they could affect the other’s candidacy.
Johnson doesn’t seem too concerned.
“That’s not going to stop me from working, trying to get where I want to be. I’m going to keep striving,” he said. “The more work you put in, the (more) goals and trophies that come with it.”