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5 stories to watch at Panthers training camp

Cam Newton training at IMG Academy
Cam Newton training at IMG Academy

SPARTANBURG With players loaded into their Wofford dormitory rooms, physical exams complete and one day of on-site meetings behind them, the Carolina Panthers hit the field Saturday for their first official practice, carrying with them a variety of storylines.

Here are five significant storylines as training camp unfolds:

1. It's a new day

Coming off a 2-14 season that was filled with frustration followed by the lockout, there's a fresh feeling as training camp begins.

There's a new coaching staff, new offensive and defensive philosophies, new terminology, new players, new contracts and a renewed optimism after a wipeout season.

"It's like hitting the re-set button," running back Tyrelle Sutton said.

Like every other NFL team, the Panthers didn't have the chance to get in any official off-season work but unlike most of the others, they're starting over with coach Ron Rivera and his staff. The good news is players were able to get playbooks during a one-day break in the lockout but it's almost like cramming for an exam with the first exhibition two weeks away.

Rivera said he has a nervous excitement about getting fully to work in his first head coaching job.

"The job right now is to go out there and learn the playbook and learn what we can do as a new team," running back Jonathan Stewart said.

2. The quarterback situation

Among the many issues that dragged down the Panthers last season was quarterback play or, as many critics said, the lack thereof.

The good news from last year, if you want to take the rainbow approach, is Jimmy Clausen got plenty of experience even if he didn't get many victories.

Now comes Cam Newton, the first pick in the draft and a star before he ever set foot in Charlotte or Spartanburg. He makes what happens at quarterback a national story.

It starts as an open competition with Clausen having a slight edge based on his game experience last season but the expectation is it will be Newton's job. Whether it becomes his job during training camp, by the regular-season opener Sept. 11 at Arizona or sometime thereafter remains the question.

Newton, according to multiple reports, did all the right things during the lockout to prepare himself for what's ahead. He worked out in Florida at IMG Academy under the tutelage of former Carolina quarterback Chris Weinke and he impressed his teammates during the player workouts earlier this summer.

For Clausen, the challenge is clear. He looked overmatched often last year but it wasn't entirely his fault. The Panthers looked overmatched last season.

"Last year was a tough season all around," Clausen said. "It's a new offense. I have to get into the (playbook) as fast as I can."

The other question is whether the Panthers will bring in a veteran, such as a Marc Bulger or Jake Delhomme, to mentor the young quarterbacks.

"It's a possibility. We just haven't done it," general manager Marty Hurney said.

3 How will Jeff Otah, Chris Gamble and Thomas Davis rebound?

Neither Otah nor Davis played last season and Gamble's season wasn't memorable.

The loss of Otah along the offensive line was a critical blow when what was thought to be a relatively minor knee surgery turned into a lost year. Otah arrived at Wofford Thursday and pronounced himself ready to go.

"It's a good feeling to be back here, ready to get started, see what we're going to get out of this season," Otah said. "We have a lot of new players and new guys. It's time to get that bond going and see if we can start meshing."

Davis, meanwhile, is coming off two ACL surgeries that have cost him part of the 2009 season and all of the 2010 season. Still, the Panthers have enough faith in Davis that they rewarded him this week with a five-year contraction extension.

With Davis healthy again, he figures to be part of a strong linebacker corps that includes Jon Beason and James Anderson.

Gamble struggled last season before a hamstring injury shut him down late in the year. He didn't have an interception and fell into John Fox's doghouse. His improved performance this season is considered critical for what is considered a questionable secondary.

4 How effective will Steve Smith be?

Last season, when Smith caught 46 passes and scored two touchdowns, he was a shadow of his former self because of injury issues, frustration and quarterback problems.

He suggested he might want to play elsewhere but now says he intends to retire a Panther. Smith, who has never lacked for motivation, sounds like he's ready to get back to being the old No. 89.

"Whether people have things to say about my contract or if I've lost a step, it's valid because I'm getting older," Smith said. "Thirty-two is an age where people think you're losing a step.

"Mostly last year I played hurt. I looked very slow at times. But that's what we come here for (training camp) ...to work the kinks out."

Smith and Newton have been working out together privately, building a chemistry. It could be just the refreshing change Smith needed.

5. Have tight ends become a priority?

It certainly seems that way with the acquisitions of Jeremy Shockey and, earlier this week, former Chicago Bear Greg Olsen.

"That's one of the positions where we've made the most improvement," Hurney said.

In the John Fox era, the Panthers didn't use the tight end often in the passing game, but that's apparently going to change under new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. Not only will the Panthers be able to utilize a two tight-end set that Newton was comfortable with at Auburn, both Shockey and Olsen - along with Gary Barnidge and Ben Hartsock - add a stronger playmaking threat than before.

"You can never have enough guys at that position," Shockey said. "It's a position you can easily get mismatches, tell if it's man or zone reads.

"I'm excited to play with (Olsen). This is my 10th season, there's always been multiple tight ends in the game at one time."

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