By: James Barkley, Staff Writer
Excitement was in the air once again as the Panthers arrived back at Wofford to start their annual training camp. Dating back to 1995, Wofford has hosted training camp for the Carolina Panthers. Over that period of time, it has become a second home for the team. Fans travel from all around the Carolinas and beyond to watch their team prepare during the offseason, and this year was no different. The Wofford community welcomed the crowds to their campus, recording the second-highest attendance at training camp in Panthers history, as 99,196 people arrived in Spartanburg to help cheer on the Panthers.
Training camp began with the Fan Fest where players were welcomed by thousands of fans decked out in Panthers jerseys and holding signs for their favorite players. Fans were happy to see all their favorite veterans, but it was also their first look at some of the new members of this year’s squad. Coming off a lackluster season, the Panthers held the eighth pick in the 2016 NFL Draft and used it to bring in Heisman finalist and Stanford product Christian McCaffrey, who is expected to be a nice compliment to Jonathan Stewart. Another notable rookie that joined the team was former Ohio State WR Curtis Samuel, whose electric speed has fans raving. Fans cheered on McCaffrey and Samuel, along with the other rookies, as they took the field to practice with their new teammates.
It was great for the fans to see some players return from injuries, such as star linebacker Luke Kuechly, who missed a significant part of last season due to concussion protocol. Cam Newton returned from shoulder surgery and took some time easing back into throwing, leaving it to Derek Anderson to fill in as quarterback for the time being. However, that didn’t stop Cam from having a good time interacting with the fans. Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess, who are both looking to have big years, led the receivers and present some solid help to Cam when he returns.
Providing help for a secondary that struggled last season, the Panthers brought in veteran cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. Being originally drafted by the Panthers in 2009, Munnerlyn left the Panthers during free agency in 2014, but was welcomed back with cheers and open arms after playing in Minnesota for two seasons. The hope is that Munnerlyn can help the Panthers defense while also mentoring young cornerbacks James Bradberry and Daryl Worley. Another former player to return to the Panthers was defensive end Julius Peppers. As he was once an unstoppable force for Carolina, fans were elated to see Peppers in a Panthers jersey once again. The addition of these two veterans should add a spark to the defense that could end up being a problem for opposing teams’ offenses to face.
For three weeks, fans watched the Panthers practice at Gibbs Stadium and cheered for their favorite players as they prepared for the upcoming preseason games. It wasn’t a spectacular preseason for the Panthers, going 2-2, but it was reassuring to see some crucial parts of the team moving in the right direction. Christian McCaffrey showed that he is ready to provide immediate help to the Panther’s offense, Kelvin Benjamin looked as if he is returning to his rookie form, and, although only playing one series, Cam Newton showed that he has recovered nicely from his offseason surgery. Derek Anderson was a bit shaky during Newton’s absence, so it was reassuring for fans to see Cam back under center even if it was for a brief moment.
You can only tell so much about a team’s future from the preseason, but it seems that the Panthers are starting to mesh with their new additions and the feeling is that they will only improve as the season progresses. After going 6-10 last season, the Panthers are in need of a bounce-back year. However, they find themselves in a much-improved NFC South, and that will present a challenge. Regardless, the Panthers goals remain the same for this season as they strive to return to the playoffs. Kicking off on Sept. 10, the Panthers will travel to San Francisco to take on the 49ers for their first game of the season.