Panthers See Sunny Side of Youth Movement

OT Jordan Gross (Grant Halverson/Getty)

Make no doubt about it, the Carolina Panthers are young.

Of the 86 players on the roster, amazingly 69 of them are 25 or younger. There are only four players 30 or older, and two of them are kickers.

Only nine players on the roster have been in the league for more than five years.

"We are young but we have a lot of energy," coach John Fox said. "Guys are willing to work hard and I'm seeing that. Now we just have to mold it into a football unit ... We've increased our team speed. We have a lot of youth and with youth comes energy, so that's the good news. We just have to direct that energy in the right way."

Tackle Jordan Gross, who at 29 years old is the sixth-oldest player on the team, said this minicamp felt like the start of a new era in Panthers history.

But Gross said by the end of minicamp he was excited about the team's future.

"There's good energy and some good competition," Gross said. "There are a lot more positives happening than if you just look at it on paper. Just because we didn't sign any major free agents doesn't mean the young talent we have isn't any good. Everybody is playing fast. That's what happens when everybody is 25."

Linebacker Thomas Davis, at 27, is projected to be the second-oldest starter on defense, 11 days younger than cornerback Chris Gamble.

He said there's a different feeling when he looks around the locker room at all of the new, young faces.

"You definitely get a different sense about this team," Davis said. "You don't have those older guys to start the season like we did last year. Some of the older guys that have been here have to step up and be leaders."

The purge of veterans and the team's unwillingness to restock with veteran players have left many fans wondering if it's worth investing time in this team this season.

That, said Davis, is understandable.

But he thinks the Panthers, who play the seventh-easiest schedule in the league, might surprise some people.

"I think rightfully so people are going to wonder what kind of team we're going to be because we have a lot of new faces and a lot of younger guys," Davis said. "But I think we have the talent to get it done. I think we have what it takes. It's about putting the pieces of the puzzle together and actually going out there and doing it."

NOTES, QUOTES


Coach John Fox
Over the past eight seasons, Panthers coach John Fox has become a master at speaking but saying nothing. Rarely does he give out meaningful information.

So when Fox talked candidly about the team's decision to trade starting safety Chris Harris to the Chicago Bears for backup linebacker Jamar Williams it raised some eyebrows.

"We've got a budget," Fox said matter-of-factly. "And that had something to do with it."

It's the first time anyone in the Panthers organization has admitted that personnel moves might be more about saving money (with a lockout looming) than the team's previous official stance, which has been that they have confidence in the young guys behind them and want to see them play.

The Panthers released or didn't re-sign nine starters from last year's team, including quarterback Jake Delhomme, fullback Brad Hoover, wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, right guard Keydrick Vincent, defensive end Julius Peppers, defensive tackles Damione Lewis and Maake Kemoeatu, linebacker Na'il Diggs and now Harris.

"I think the common theme is we have some young players who have shown the ability and potential to step up," general manager Marty Hurney said in the past.

--Before Steve Smith ever ran a route for Jimmy Clausen he made sure the rookie quarterback ran one for him.

Smith asked Clausen, who was flying in from California for this weekend's minicamp in Charlotte, to bring him a 12-pack of Cactus Cooler, an orange drink with pineapple native to the West Coast and virtually impossible to find in these parts.

Knowing how important Smith could be to his future, Clausen was eager to oblige.

"I had to sneak it on the plane," he joked. "It got here safely."

Whether right or wrong, there's a very public perception that Clausen was arrogant and not a particularly great team player during his three-year career at Notre Dame.

Clausen's heard that talk before and denies that notion.

Perhaps in an effort to quickly dispel any notion of arrogance right away Clausen seems to be going out of his way to get to establish relationships with his new teammates. He exchanged text messages with a number of players after getting drafted, including Smith and left tackle Jordan Gross.

"I just wanted to introduce myself," he said simply.

--Starting left tackle Jordan Gross said he fully expects to be ready for training camp when the Panthers report to Spartanburg, S.C., on July 30.

"I'm coming along," Gross said. "I had a checkup before minicamp and everything is right on schedule. It's just a timely process. They told me six to eight months right from the beginning and I'm almost at six months. I'm thinking for training camp I will be normal. The leg is definitely getting stronger, so I'm excited about that."

--Since coming into the league in 2001, Steve Smith has been working under the tutelage of veteran wide receivers coach Richard Williamson. But with Williamson now retired, Smith is seeing a lot of different drills with coach Tyke Tolbert.

"I have a great amount of respect for coach Williamson and he's been my coach for a long time," Smith said. "At the same time I'm learning quite a bit from Tyke Tolbert. He's doing things a little different. Not to say it's bad or to take anything away from (Williamson), but it's just different and there are some things I have to get used to. Change can be good and I think it can be a good fit."

Smith said he spoke with Terrell Owens and Anquan Boldin about Tolbert. Both star receivers have played under Tolbert in the past.

"They had nothing but great things to say about him," Smith said.

--Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said he's excited about being teammates again with Eric Norwood, his roommate at South Carolina. He thinks Norwood, who worked at strong side linebacker and defensive end in minicamp, will be a huge asset to the Panthers following an All-American career with the Gamecocks.

"You can expect a guy who is going to go 110 percent every day," Munnerlyn said. "I've seen it. And when it's game time he just turns it up another notch. He goes 150 percent in a game. In a game he just turns into a beast."

--Starting cornerback Richard Marshall did not attend minicamp because he's not signed his tender.

"He called to check on his teammates and I know he misses us," Munnerlyn said. "But he's got to do what he's got to do."

--Geoff Schwartz, who played very well at right tackle the last three games of the 2009 season, is getting a look at right guard this week. The Panthers opted not to re-sign Keydrick Vincent and Mackenzy Bernadeau, his expected replacement, has been limited in practice meaning Schwartz is getting a few extra reps. At 6-foot-6 and 331 pounds, some might consider Schwartz too big to play inside, but the Panthers are taking a peak at him anyway.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I break my leg and I come back and the team has all changed. It takes some getting used to and it was hard for me because I lost some real good friends. It's been different every year, but this year there were some big names released, more so than usual. You deal with it and get over it." -- Panthers OT Jordan Gross on the team's youth.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

MEDICAL WATCH: Linebacker Thomas Davis returned to the practice field Friday for the start of minicamp just five months after having surgery to repair a torn ACL in his right knee.

"I give all of the credit to the trainers," Davis said of the remarkable feat. "They've done a great job working with me and getting me back to this point. I've been working hard. It's been a grind. I'm happy to be where I am right now."

Asked if he's 100 percent, Davis said not completely, but added, "I would say if the season started next week I would probably be ready to go." That's amazing considering a torn ACL used to keep players out a minimum of one year.

As for his contract, Davis said he hasn't signed his one-year tender with the Panthers yet -- and probably won't for awhile -- but is practicing under an injury protection letter which covers him throughout offseason workouts in case of an unexpected injury.

Davis said he's "not disgruntled" over the fact that he hasn't received a new contract.

"I'm excited about being here," Davis said. "I'm just trying to let everything work itself out."

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