Fullback Mike Tolbert had spent nearly a month out of pads nursing a hamstring injury, but on Labor Day, he made his return to work.
The past month has been anything but a vacation for the sixth-year back, whose rehab sessions inside the building during practice often left him soaked in sweat before he joined the team on the sideline.
Tolbert got his normal amount of reps for a game-week practice Monday, and he’s optimistic he’ll make his return to game action Sunday against Seattle.
“I feel confident they’re going to give me the green light,” said Tolbert, who missed all four exhibitions.
“I needed the snaps just for the fact of knocking the rust off, but this is my sixth year and I’ve seen it all. I think once I get in there and get my shoulders banged a couple times, I’ll be fine.”
The Panthers will need Tolbert in their backfield. With Jonathan Stewart out for the first six weeks, relegated to the physically unable to perform list, and rookie Kenjon Barner likely out Sunday with a foot injury, the Panthers have Tolbert, DeAngelo Williams and Armond Smith as their backfield options.
Carolina is set at starting running back with Williams, the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, but backing him up is Smith, who in two years has six regular-season carries for 2 yards.
Tolbert is Carolina’s only real fullback option. Richie Brockel has been used more this preseason as a blocking tight end and fullback, and he didn’t get a single carry last year.
“I still love it because we still got a Pro Bowler,” Tolbert said of the backfield, referring to Williams. “Whenever you have a Pro Bowler, a lot of things could go wrong but you can still get positive things done. As long as we got DeAngelo healthy and I’m getting back healthy, we should be fine.
“It’s still a (heck) of a backfield, but at the same time it could be so much more. (Stewart) is a dynamic running back that we’re going to miss, but we got play calls that we can make up for his not being there. Once he comes off that PUP list Week 6, I hope he’s ready to roll because we’re going to feed him.”
Coach Ron Rivera echoed his fullback’s confidence.
“I feel good about Mike, and I feel good about the prospects on Wednesday when we start practicing again,” Rivera said.
The Panthers will be testing their backfield against one of the best defenses from a year ago. Seattle finished fourth in the league in total defense and 10th in rushing defense, allowing 103.1 yards per game.
Last year against the Seahawks, Carolina mustered 82 rushing yards on 19 carries. The running backs accounted 31 of those yards, and Tolbert finished with one carry for 3 yards.
“They’re at the top of the league for a reason,” Tolbert said. “Their front four is very, very dominant. And their secondary plays good ball and sound defense. It’s hard to beat a team that rarely messes up.”
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