SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Carolina Panthers training camp from Wofford College:
It sounded like a car crash. Only instead of crumpled sheet metal, fullback Mike Tolbert crumpled to the ground. On easily the biggest hit of training camp in the most physical practice, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly ran into Tolbert on fourth-and-goal inside the 1-yard line so hard that you could hear it at The Beacon (Spartanburg's famous greasy spoon) a few miles away. OK, maybe it wasn't that loud. But it did turn heads. And it started the eruption of a defensive celebration that didn't go unnoticed by Carolina coach Ron Rivera. "Panthers won today," Rivera said with a smile as though the play came on the final second of the Super Bowl to secure the victory. Kuechly said it was "payback" for Tolbert running over him on third-and-1 at the 15-yard line in the Pro Bowl. "I had to get him back," Kuechly said. For the Panthers it was a nice reminder that the league's second-ranked defense in 2013 will be a force again. It also was a reminder that Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is deserving of all the accolades he gets. "It was a very big statement," Rivera said. "To be quite honest the offense was getting after the defense and they needed to make something happen -- and they did."
Saturday marked the return of the Joshes -- cornerbacks Josh Thomas and Josh Norman. For Thomas, it was his first appearance in camp after being placed on the non-football injury list with a back injury. Neither did anything to stand out, and it's going to be tough for both to make the final 53-man roster again. Much depends on how many cornerbacks the Panthers keep. Antoine Cason, Melvin White, Bene' Benwikere (had yet another interception on Saturday) and Charles Godfrey (sat out of practice with soreness in Achilles) appear to be locks. If the Panthers keep five cornerbacks, then one of the Joshes is out.
Rivera recently said Cason eventually might get into the punt return business. Eventually has arrived. Cason led off the group on Saturday. Benwikere also got into the mix. Cason last returned a punt in 2012 -- one for nine yards. The last time he had more than one in a season was 2014, when he had 14 for a 16.5 average. This remains a spot the Panthers could look to fill with the waiver wire late in camp. Yes, they miss Ted Ginn Jr.
With starting defensive ends Greg Hardy (shoulder contusion) and Charles Johnson (hamstring) out, second-round pick Kony Ealy got more opportunities. He still struggled, to the point quarterback Cam Newton began taunting him, but did more good things than he has in any other practice.
The Panthers practice again on Sunday at 9:25 a.m. before getting an off day on Monday. Rivera indicated prior to practice that the team would go without pads after going five straight days in them. That Saturday's practice was so physical as the team focused on short-yardage situations and goal-line plays makes that more likely.