SPARTANBURG — DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert both say that, as a running back, you cant touch the ball enough.
Coach Ron Rivera and others say there will be a renewed emphasis on the running game in Mike Shulas first year as offensive coordinator. Shula replaced Rob Chudzinski, who became head coach of the Cleveland Browns after last season.
Williams and Tolbert, the Panthers most viable options as an every-down running back and tailback, respectively, are pleased with the direction Shula is headed.
Last year was a lot of broken promises, shall I say, Tolbert said. But now we have a new offensive coordinator and things are starting to come to light.
Tolbert signed with Carolina in 2012 after his first four seasons in San Diego, after he says he was told he would run the football and also catch balls out of the backfield as a hybrid-type back in two tight-end sets.
He finished with 183 rushing yards, his lowest total since his second year in the league, and went from 54 catches and 433 yards with the 2011 Chargers to 27 catches for 268 yards with the Panthers.
I think the big thing is, again, getting a feeling and understanding of who we became at the end of the year, that will really dictate those things, said Rivera, referring to the Panthers change in rushing philosophy last year. And were going to stick to that. I really like the way things have come along.
In Fridays preseason opener against the Bears, the Panthers ran the ball 30 times in 63 offensive plays, or 47.6 percent of the time. Last season, Carolina rushed the ball, on average, 43.8 percent of plays during the second half of the season.
Tolbert has been sidelined since last week with a right hamstring strain, though the fullback said Monday that if the regular season were to start today, hed play. Rivera said he expects Tolbert to be back on the field in a week.
But the Panthers are thin in the backfield as training camp wraps up. Jonathan Stewart, who last year started six games for Carolina, was placed on the physically unable to perform list when camp began while rehabbing his right ankle from offseason surgery. Rivera said Monday he expects Stewart to be ready for Week 1.
This week, the Panthers lost undrafted rookie fullback Mike Zordich for the season with an anterior cruciate ligament tear suffered during Fridays game. The team does not plan to sign another fullback.
Its still a good backfield, Tolbert said. You got DeAngelo Williams whos a Pro Bowler. Then you bring in guys like Kenjon Barner with the speed, and Armond Smith with the speed and Tauren Poole, whos a multipurpose back.
Then you got the ultimate weapon behind center (Cam Newton) so you always got to account for him. We still got a great backfield even if me or Jonathan isnt back there. But once we do get back there, its going to be a hell of a backfield.
Stewart said he had no update on his ankle and, through a team spokesman, declined further comment. On reporting day on July 25, Stewart said his pain was substantial, but Rivera was encouraged by Stewarts running on the sideline this week.
With Tolbert ready to get back into the fold in a week and Stewart likely out for the preseason, the starting backfield configuration will be Williams and Tolbert. But the fullback said he doesnt mind taking a step back once Stewart gets healthy.
He sees his brothers out there practicing and playing every day, and he just wants to be out there, Tolbert said. Knowing that his body is not ready, its more of a mental thing with him.
When he gets back, Ill slide over and let him get some shine. Its nothing but love between all of us.
Jones: 704-358-5223; Twitter: @jjones9