It's Wharton's Turn

Perhaps the most important move of the offseason was the decision to move Jordan Gross to Right Tackle, and Travelle Wharton to Left Tackle. Can Wharton handle the left side and protect Jake Delhomme's backside from the opposing teams' speed rushers?

Wharton played Left Tackle his entire career at South Carolina. Freshman year, Wharton started 10 out of 12 games at left tackle. Sophomore year, Wharton started 11 games at left tackle, missing one because of an ankle injury. Junior year, Wharton started all 12 games at Left Tackle and was selected All-SEC first team by The Sporting News. Senior year, Wharton started all 12 games at Left Tackle, was a team captain, and earned second-team All-SEC recognition. In Fact, Wharton did not give up a single sack after the second game in his freshman year, an impressive span of 45 games.

Still, with all those accolades, Wharton slipped to the third round and the Panthers picked him with the 93rd pick overall in the 2004 NFL Draft. Why did Wharton slip so far? According to expert scouting reports, Wharton allegedly had a problem with containing speedy edge rushers and was exploited all week long at the 2004 Senior Bowl practices.

"I started off kind of slow (at the Senior Bowl) and I think after the second day I came out and started to pick it up and really competed well," said Wharton after last years' Senior Bowl. "I could have done a lot better, but it was only a week." After that performance, scouts projected that Wharton, who is a strong, wide-bodied blocker, would do well as a Guard in the NFL.

As Wharton's play at Left Guard in 2004 would indicate, those scouts were proven correct. Wharton started the final 11 games for the Panthers at Left Guard last season, and helped bring stability to an Offense that faced a great deal of adversity. "A lot of personnel people will tell you that Travelle was one of the best young guards in the league last year," said head coach John Fox.

With the emergence of Wharton at Left Guard, and former 2003 first round pick Jordan Gross at Left Tackle, the Panthers left side of the Offensive Line were set in stone, so it seemed. That is, until Mike Wahle became available in free agency.

When the opportunity arose to pick up Wahle, the outstanding pulling Guard from Green Bay, the Panthers jumped at the chance. Wahle was the perfect fit for the Panthers offense – a guy who had a lot of experience in the run game, and a guy who did his job at a pro-bowl level. Early on, there was a lot of discussion on where Wahle would play because he was able to play Tackle, Guard and Center. "I'd like to see (Wahle) stay right where he is at left guard," said Maser. "I think he's more valuable to us."

Then the Panthers got to thinking… maybe it would be best to move Jordan Gross back to Right Tackle – where he excelled as a rookie and would again help the run game to the right side – and try Travelle Wharton at Left Tackle. With Matt Willig and Todd Fordham as the Panthers' Right Tackles in 2004, the Panthers found it extremely difficult to execute any running plays to that side of the field. With Gross back at RT, running to the right is again possible. "The coaches were real open with me the whole time," Gross said. "They said it was with the personnel we have, trying to get the best combination out there. Travelle's a good player. He's got really good feet, good technique. You never know what can happen, but I think we're off to a good start with the whole thing."

Can Wharton handle playing Left Tackle in the NFL, where the players are bigger, stronger and faster than those he faced in the SEC? "He's a guy that played left tackle his whole college career," coach Fox said. "We saw his athletic ability last year. He played guard for us and did an outstanding job, so we know he can do that. We're taking a look at him right now at left tackle, and we've been very, very impressed with what he's done there."

However, it is only Summer Practice, after all. Fox acknowledges that Wharton needs improvement.

"He's got a of developing to do but he's got all of the athletic and physical tools to do that," Fox said after the fist Summer School practice. "Now, it's just a matter of honing his skills, which I really feel comfortable he will."

Offensive Line coach Maser knows Wharton is up for the challenge. "He didn't give up any sacks or any pressures and really played well (in a preseason game versus Washington)," Maser said. "That's when I knew he could do it."

The good news is that he'll be paired with one of the best Guards in the league in Mike Wahle, where he'll be able to learn and get advice in crucial situations. Wahle, who has played both Tackle and Guard, will help Wharton make the transition back to Left Tackle. "The difference between guard and tackle is that at tackle your responsibility varies greatly from play to play, while at guard, you're always banging," Wahle said. "You're going to have contact every play. That's the part I like. You get to run around a lot. You're always in the mix and fighting those big guys. But at tackle, especially left tackle, you have to worry about a guy who is probably the other team's best athlete getting to your quarterback. Very often, you're not going to have any help. It's a pressure cooker situation. You have to have very good technique to play at left tackle."

"Every time you step out there you always have to prove yourself," Wharton said.

He'll face the toughest test of his young career in the next few months.

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