SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Observations from the Carolina Panthers’ training camp practice on Wednesday at Wofford College:
First punches: Defensive end Frank Alexander and guard Ricky Henry got into the first real fisticuffs of camp during a one-on-one drill. Henry appeared to aggravate the exchange by grabbing Alexander’s facemask. Alexander then came at Henry with a right-left-right combination. Henry tried to respond with a right but whiffed. Alexander caught Henry with another right just under the facemask. Coach Ron Rivera said it was a bit too much for his liking, but it showed the high intensity early in practice.
Red zone inefficiency: Carolina ranked 27th in red zone efficiency last season, and the offense looked sluggish there today. Quarterback Cam Newton completed only two passes – both to rookie Devin Funchess – in two series inside the 20. At one point he kicked the dirt and shouted in frustration. Rivera said he liked a lot of what he saw from the red zone defense, noting the offense hadn’t scripted much.
Newcomer: Cornerback T.J. Heath was on the golf course in Alabama when the Panthers called him Tuesday to set up a tryout after learning veteran corner Chris Houston was retiring. He made a couple of nice plays in his first practice, the best when he hit wide receiver Damiere Byrd hard enough on the sideline to lodge the ball loose and force an incompletion.
Making an impression: Speaking of Byrd, the undrafted rookie out of South Carolina continues to catch eyes. He had a catch from Newton that was just out of bounds in the end zone during red zone drills. Practice ended with Byrd catching a touchdown pass in the back of the end zone from third-string quarterback Joe Webb. He probably won’t make the 53-man roster, but he’s a good candidate for the practice squad.
Walking wounded: Cornerback Bene’ Benwikere (hamstring) continued to sit out, as did defensive tackle Kawann Short (back). Rivera hopes to have Short back in a few days. He said the timetable for Benwikere to return is next week, but he doesn’t expect the starting nickel back to play in the preseason opener against Miami. Rivera said the team won’t rush starting defensive tackle Star Lotulelei back onto the field. Lotulelei will miss at least three weeks after being diagnosed with a “stress reaction’’ on the right foot that underwent surgery in January.
Shaq in shorts: First-round draft pick Shaq Thompson had his left leg wrapped and sat out of practice. Rivera said Thompson tweaked the hamstring that gave the outside linebacker issues in offseason workouts. Thompson will be day to day.
Play of the day: I’ll give it to wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin with an asterisk. Benjamin went high for a reception between two defenders. He also was flagged for offensive pass interference.