Carolina Panthers starting left guard Amini Silatolu has 18 career starts and is coming off a knee surgery that sidelined him for the bulk of the team’s 12-win season in 2013.
Rookie Trai Turner, the leading candidate at right guard, didn’t turn 21 until a week and a half ago.
But there’s been little hand-wringing over the guards from Panthers’ fans, who have reserved most of their angst for the tackles since longtime left tackle Jordan Gross retired in February.
That’s due in part to the inherent positioning of the guard position, fortified on either side by a tackle and center, who in the Panthers’ case happens to be perennial Pro Bowler Ryan Kalil.
The other reason the guards have escaped public scrutiny is the feeling among the decision-makers at Bank of America Stadium that the kids are alright.
“They’re competing, and there’s a lot of youth there,” general manager Dave Gettleman said last week at the close of minicamp. “We like what’s going on.”
What went on last season was a steady procession by Panthers guards from the trenches to the operating table.
The injuries began in training camp when then-rookie Edmund Kugbila struggled to get on the field because of a balky hamstring.
Kugbila later landed on injured reserve after tearing knee ligaments, one of three guards – including starters Silatolu and Garry Williams – whose seasons ended because of knee surgeries.
The Panthers backup guards were victimized by injuries, as well. Jeff Byers underwent season-ending foot surgery and retired in the offseason, while Chris Scott, who took over for Williams at right guard, missed five games with a sprained knee.
The Panthers took some unusual measures to cover for the injuries, signing a pair of former starters in Travelle Wharton and Geoff Hangartner, who was cut early in training camp, and making an ill-fated attempt to turn defensive tackle Sione Fua into a guard.
But at least two of the moves worked: Wharton and Nate Chandler, another converted defensive lineman, manned the guard spots capably as the Panthers made the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
But with Silatolu healthy and the Panthers investing a third-round pick in Turner, Gettleman felt comfortable moving Chandler to tackle and choosing not to re-sign Wharton, who has hinted that he plans to retire.
Silatolu, 25, the second-round pick in 2012 from Division II Midwestern State, was limited during OTAs (organized team activities) and minicamp. But he hopes to be full speed for the start of training camp next month.
Silatolu was very specific last week when asked the status of his knee.
“It feels good, probably 98 percent,” he said. “I’ve still got to work on some stuff during this little break.”
Silatolu and Kalil were impressed with how quickly Turner picked up the offense. Kalil said the 6-3, 320-pound Turner has done “an incredible job” transitioning from LSU following his redshirt sophomore season.
“Minicamp and OTAs are meant to sort of overwhelm the young guys and see how well new guys adapt. Especially in this offense, we’re throwing a ton of information at them,” Kalil said. “And he’s done a really good job being able to handle it all.”
“I’m excited about him,” Kalil added. “He’s a great guy. He’s got an incredible work ethic and his football awareness is really good. It’s hard, you’ve got to remind yourself he’s only (21) years old.”
Turner started 20 games – all at right guard – at LSU, where he led the SEC with 21 touchdown-resulting blocks and was first among Tigers’ linemen with 64 knockdown blocks.
Turner said his experience in the SEC, widely considered the nation’s toughest conference, helped prepare him for the NFL – but only to a point.
“In a way, you’re somewhat prepared, not all the way prepared,” Turner said. “Because when you get here, whether a guy went first round or free agent, if he’s been in the league a year, he’s a totally different kind of guy just in terms of physicality, his mental makeup.
“He knows the system pretty much pat down. Me, I’m coming in learning the system, trying to see what’s the tempo of the game. It’s just a transition point for me. But it’s going pretty good.”
The transition has been more difficult for Kugbila, who has played only a handful of practice snaps since the Panthers drafted him in the fourth round last year.
While Williams was recently cleared following surgery last September to repair two ligaments in his left knee, Kugbila has yet to return from similar surgery around the same time.
Gettleman said the 6-4, 325-pound Kugbila hasn’t suffered any setbacks; he’s just a slow healer.
“The kid is working his heart out,” Gettleman said. “What I’m learning is he’s just so big from top to bottom that it’s just in due time.”
The Panthers hope that time will be by training camp, so Kugbila can join a competition that also includes Derek Dennis and Scott, who missed a couple of OTA practices to work on his conditioning.
Because no matter how well Turner and the guards might have practiced in the shorts-and-helmets sessions during OTAs, nothing will be decided until Spartanburg.
“They look good, as good as they can look in pajamas,” Kalil said of the guards. “I’m anxious and excited to see how they do when we get full pads on...”
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