SPARTANBURG, S.C. — The Panthers had just wrapped up their third training camp practice Saturday at Gibbs Stadium — another one in shorts and helmets — when a reporter mentioned to Frank Reich what was coming after Sunday’s off day.
“Pads on Monday, yeah, let’s go!” Reich said, his eyes getting big. “I think the players are looking forward to it. You can get a lot done (in non-contact practices) but I think we’re all looking forward to getting the pads on.”
Reich pointed out that the evaluation process is easier during the fully padded practices, and that’s especially true for the offensive and defensive linemen. Still, a number of players stood out during the Panthers’ first week at Wofford. The Athletic looks at seven surprises from what Reich called the “first block” of camp, as well as an update on the Panthers’ future in Spartanburg.
Nice throw by Bryce Young. Better catch by DJ Chark. pic.twitter.com/krVr30ur2u
— Joe Person (@josephperson) July 29, 2023
Seven early surprises from Spartanburg
1. How quickly Ikem Ekwonu has become a force at left tackle
As mentioned, there wasn’t much in the way of hand-to-hand combat in the trenches during the first week. But the way coaches and defensive players talk about Ekwonu, it’s clear the respect the 2022 first-round pick commands in the locker room and on the practice field. In describing how nice it was to see Brian Burns back on the field following ankle surgery in April, Reich was quick to add it was good the offense had Ekwonu to line up against Burns.
Ekwonu, the former N.C. State lineman, made big strides as a rookie after a tough debut against the Browns’ Myles Garrett. Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson expects another big leap from him.
“Ickey’s strong as hell. He’s definitely improved a lot. Having that first year, going through whatever highs and lows. But I think he has one of the best offensive line coaches (James Campen) in the game,” Thompson said. “you go against Burns every day, he’s just gonna make you better. He’s definitely one of those guys that definitely is gonna improve this year.”
Panthers camp report: Turnovers plague offense, including Bryce Young’s first pick-six
2. C.J. Henderson redemption tour
When last we saw Henderson, the backup cornerback was getting beaten by Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans in a Week 17 loss that cost the Panthers a shot at a playoff berth. That performance likely played a part in the Panthers’ decision to decline Henderson’s fifth-year option for 2024, making this a prove-it year for Henderson in the final year of his contract.
So far, the former first-rounder is proving it, with interceptions of rookie Bryce Young in back-to-back practices. After Young gifted Henderson an INT on Thursday, Henderson made a great, one-handed pick Saturday during a one-on-one rep against Damiere Byrd. Based on Byrd’s line split, Henderson correctly sniffed out a fade route and made a play on the ball.
Henderson is a player who doesn’t say much, but he conceded he was playing with an edge this season. “It’s a make-or-break year. I’ve gotta go out and earn mine,” he said. “My back is against the wall. I feel like that’s when I do my best.”
3. Keith Taylor had a good day Saturday, as well
Henderson wasn’t the only corner out on that island at Tampa against Evans and Tom Brady last season. Taylor also had a rough day, leading to offseason questions about whether the Panthers needed to improve their corner depth behind starters Jaycee Horn and Donte Jackson.
But like Henderson, Taylor looked like he had something to prove Saturday when he had a pair of pass breakups during one-on-ones, the second when he was lined up against rookie receiver Jonathan Mingo.
It was part of a strong showing all around for the pass defense. Thompson undercut Shi Smith in team drills to intercept Young, while free-agent acquisition Vonn Bell got his hand on a pass from Young, who was 10-of-15 in the 11-on-11 work.
“They made a couple of really nice plays. I’m really happy with the playmaking I’ve seen out here in this first block,” Reich said of the defensive backfield. “Excited about that, I think that’s gonna be a good group for us.”
4. How involved Laviska Shenault has been
The former Jacksonville receiver was already something of a chess piece after coming to Charlotte in a trade last August. But Reich and his staff really seem intent on utilizing Shenault’s versatility. Shenault has worked with the running backs during individual drills and Saturday took a handoff from Young out of the backfield during the first series. “They’re really trying to figure out what do you do the best and we’re going to make sure we put you in the best situation,” he said.
The more touches the merrier for Shenault, a second-round pick in 2020 who is set to become a free agent for the first time next offseason. “I had to train hard this offseason because I know what’s coming, so I’ve gotta be prepared in every way possible,” Shenault added. “It’s bag year. I’ve gotta be ready and prepared in every way possible.”
5. Kamu Grugier-Hill
Didn’t really expect to be typing and/or tweeting Grugier-Hill’s name a lot during camp. But the free-agent acquisition — who’s been mostly a special teams standout during his previous stops — caught everyone’s attention by intercepting Andy Dalton during team drills Wednesday and Thursday. That prompted Thompson to call the 29-year-old linebacker a “silent killer,” and had sports writers wondering if it might be time to come up with a shorthand reference. KGH didn’t have any INTs Saturday, but he received early reps on a defensive unit looking for playmakers behind starting inside linebackers Thompson and Frankie Luvu.
6. How long it took for the tight ends to make a splash
Tight ends have played a prominent role in Reich’s offense, and he’s talked about the mismatches they can create in the passing game. So we were waiting for a day like Saturday when veteran Ian Thomas, newcomer Hayden Hurst and third-year tight end Tommy Tremble were catching passes all over the field. With a rookie quarterback and Reich’s history with tight ends, expect more of that to come.
“In our offensive scheme, tight ends do play a big role. They hit some corners, some rail routes today, really big plays,” Reich said. “We love our room. Different kind of skill sets for each of them. I think they complement each other well.”
7. The quiet start for a few of the rookie draft picks (*not named Bryce Young, that is)
Young had a good first week, as did Mingo, the second-round pick from Ole Miss who was on the receiving end of several of Young’s passes. But third-rounder DJ Johnson, an edge rusher from Oregon, failed to make any splash plays, which in fairness will be easier to do when the pads come on. Fourth-round pick Chandler Zavala, Ekwonu’s former offensive line mate at N.C. State, started camp sidelined with a hamstring injury, while fifth-rounder Jammie Robinson is behind a handful of veterans at safety.
Not full but pretty good turnout at Wofford. pic.twitter.com/MKW9LOeMnT
— Joe Person (@josephperson) July 29, 2023
Panthers taking Wofford a year at a time
It used to feel like the Panthers would hold training camp at Wofford forever. But then Wofford alumnus Jerry Richardson sold the team and new owner David Tepper broke ground on a new headquarters and training facility in Rock Hill, S.C., where the Panthers planned to hold camp beginning this year.
But after that $800 million project blew up, the Panthers could either keep coming to Spartanburg, find an alternative site or stay at Bank of America Stadium for camp. This summer marks the Panthers’ 28th year in Spartanburg; it’s unclear if there will be a 29th.
A team spokesperson said Saturday the Panthers are focused on 2023 and will evaluate their relationship with Wofford on a year-to-year basis. (The Panthers did not make Tepper available to reporters.)
Wofford officials declined to comment, but a Spartanburg tourism leader said the city hopes the Panthers will remain a part of the city’s summer fabric. “Spartanburg would love to have the Panthers back because we kind of feel like we’re part of the organization,” said Billy Dunlap, chief tourism development officer for OneSpartanburg Inc.
“Spartanburg has been a part of it for 28 years and this is part of every season — you come to Spartanburg for training camp,” added Dunlap, who was part of the Panthers’ Rock Hill discussions when he worked for the York Co. (SC) tourism office.
The Panthers are one of only seven teams that still hold their training camps away from home.
The only year the Panthers didn’t come to Spartanburg was 2020 due to the pandemic. Crowds had thinned a bit in recent years, but organizers distributed 15,267 tickets for Saturday’s Back Together Weekend at Gibbs Stadium and Spartanburg officials are projecting a $7 million economic impact over the Panthers’ two-plus weeks in town.
Because Wofford has hosted the Panthers so long, the Southern Conference school has the process down to a science. It’s hard to imagine a better setup in the short term, provided the team wants to continue going away for camp.
(Top photo of Ikem Ekwonu: Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)
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