Not much changed for Travelle Wharton on his first day back with the Panthers.
Jordan Gross, his longtime teammate and neighbor, picked him up Monday morning for the drive to Bank of America Stadium, where Wharton found his old No.70 jersey hanging in his locker. On the practice field, Wharton lined up primarily at his old position of left guard.
But the Panthers hope adding Wharton to the offensive line changes the chemistry and effectiveness of a group that has struggled with injuries and consistency throughout the preseason.
Carolina’s two Pro Bowl linemen – center Ryan Kalil and Gross, the left tackle – said Wharton immediately makes the Panthers better.
“I think any time you can add a veteran guy that everybody knows, it's a good thing because it provides some security, sense of comfort and calmness in the room,” Gross said.
“I think they gave a lot of guys a lot of chances up to this point to earn some spots. So they must have felt like it was time,” Gross added. “I don't disagree with it because I think now we’ve got another guy you know can start.”
During the portion of practice that was open to the media, Wharton worked with the second-team offense at left guard, where he played for most of his eight seasons with the Panthers in 2004-11.
Amini Silatolu, who started 15 games at left guard as a rookie last season, is sidelined with a hamstring injury and is expected to miss the regular-season opener against Seattle. Garry Williams still is the right guard.
Coach Ron Rivera did not say what the plans would be for Silatolu when he returns.
Silatolu is one of several linemen who have missed time with injuries. Rookie guard Edmund Kugbila has been out nearly the entire preseason with a hamstring issue, and reserve guard/center Jeff Byers has missed the past three practices with a knee injury.
Rivera said the injuries necessitated the signing of Wharton, who worked out for the Panthers last month after being cut by Cincinnati. Wharton never played a regular-season game for the Bengals after tearing two ligaments in his right knee during their preseason opener last August.
Wharton, the Panthers’ third-round pick in 2004, said he had a restless night of sleep Sunday in anticipation of his first practice with his former team. He didn't need to worry about asking Kugbila for No.70.
“It was in my locker this morning. I told him I appreciate it. He's a good guy, a good kid,” Wharton said of Kugbila, who switched to No.79. “I'm going to enjoy working with him. He’s one of those guys that wants to work, so I’m excited about that.”
Kalil, who got teammates to chant Wharton’s name before practice, is excited to have him back.
“It's always good to play with a guy you’re familiar with and a guy you can trust,” Kalil said. “Any time you can add experience like that to an offensive line, it makes any group better. Especially for us, obviously, we’re battling some injuries. To have a guy who not only have we played with, but that’s been in this offense. The recall is pretty quick as far as the calls and the different things that we’re doing.”
The Panthers changed their offensive terminology while Wharton was gone, simplifying the verbiage.
“I'm brushing up on it. The guys are helping me out on it. There’s some different things in there, some code words,” Wharton said. “For myself, I don’t want to mess up. Even though it’s the first day, you don’t want to be that guy to mess it up.”
Gross said he and Wharton have their own lingo after playing next to each other for so long.
“It’ something you never forget. It’s like riding a bike,” Gross said. “He’s got to re-learn the offense. He spent a year learning a different offense. But he’ll be up to speed in no time.”
Kalil doesn't think the line has played as poorly as it has looked at times – or as the rushing statistics (2.98 yards per carry) might indicate. He believes linemen have been physical, only to be undone by missed assignments and lapses in play.
Gross isn’t worried, either. He said the Panthers faced tough defensive fronts the past two weeks at Philadelphia and Baltimore.
“I don’t know that we’ve ever had a preseason where everyone was just singing our praises,” he said. “I'm not freaking out. … We’ll be OK.”
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