For the first time in his career, Jonathan Stewart will start a season as the Carolina Panthers’ No. 1 running back.
With DeAngelo Williams in Pittsburgh, a healthy Stewart is expected to get the bulk of the carries when the Panthers begin pursuit of their third consecutive NFC South title.
Stewart is building a higher profile in the community, as well.
Stewart is hosting his first area youth football camp Friday and Saturday at Ardrey Kell High School, taking over the camp from former Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith, who ran it for eight years. But with Smith signing with Baltimore last year, organizers thought it made more sense to have a Panthers player headlining the camp.
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Smith asked Stewart if he was interested, and the two finalized the hand-off during a business trip to Tennessee in March.
“Me and Stew hang out a lot in the off-season. We do a lot of stuff. We’ve always had a lot of sidebar conversations about a wide range of things,” Smith said Friday. “So I know Stew’s heart. I know what he’s trying to do and what he desires. You can give it to anybody. But when you already know the person ... he knows my goals; I know his goals.”
Stewart has put on a football camp in his home state of Washington the past four years but was ready to make a mark in Charlotte. There were 250 campers registered this year, according to an official with ProCamp, which runs camps for a number of NFL players, including Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
“Obviously (Smith) has a built a great thing here in this community. And just having the opportunity to carry the torch means a lot,” Stewart said. “Steve is well known here. That puts a lot of weight on my shoulders to carry it the right way.”
Smith is still taking part in this year’s camp, as are Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly and fullback Mike Tolbert. Stewart believes the hands-on instruction from NFL stars will benefit the young players, who are in first through eighth grade.
“To hear somebody say, ‘You can do it. You can achieve your goals,’“ is one thing, Stewart said. “But to actually see them in person and interact with you, playing football, throwing the ball with you, that’s a life-changing experience.”
Stewart was helping with a running back drill an hour into the Friday morning session. When one of the campers took a hand-off and stopped running short of the goal line, Stewart encouraged him to keep going his next time.
“The end zone’s right there,” Stewart said. “You’re only 15 yards out.”
Stewart, 28, ranks second behind only Williams in the Panthers’ record books with 1,041 carries, 4,825 rushing yards and 11 games with at least 100 yards rushing.
But until last season Stewart was becoming best known for the injuries that limited him to 15 games in the first two years after he signed a five-year, $36.5 million extension before the 2012 season.
Stewart missed three games last season with a knee injury. But for the most part he stayed healthy and ran hard, finishing with 809 rushing yards, his most since a 1,133-yard season in 2009.
Stewart began doing yoga last off-season and believes his improved flexibility and strength helped him start a career-high eight games. Without an injury to rehab, Stewart was able to stick to the same off-season routine this year.
“He’s been looking great. Hasn’t had any snags going on so far, knock on wood,” Tolbert said. “He’s a pro and he’s going to be ready to go.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said in March that he would still like to employ a two-tailback system. When Rivera was asked about Stewart this week, he quickly mentioned several of the other backs, including Tolbert, change-of-pace back Fozzy Whittaker and fifth-round pick Cameron Artis-Payne.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence in him. We’re very pleased with who he is,” Rivera said of Stewart. “We think some really good things are going to happen, and also (with) the other backs we have.”
Rivera said the Panthers won’t go into games with a predetermined number of carries in mind for Stewart but instead will stay with the back who has the hot hand.
“Honestly, it’s going to come down to how you’re doing,” Rivera said. “If you’re running the ball well, you’re most certainly going to feed him.”
Stewart remains in close contact with Williams, who was cut in March after nine seasons in Carolina.
Stewart, entering his eighth season, says he’s ready to be the featured back. But the soft-spoken former first-round pick has learned not to take anything for granted.
“Every year I look forward to the opportunity. Every year’s not promised,” Stewart said during a break in his camp. “Every year — especially nowadays —I’m healthy and I can just go out and enjoy my job. That’s all I look forward to.”
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