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Panthers camp: Punt returners struggle in practice

SPARTANBURG Ted Ginn Jr. had a way of making it look effortless when he would field punts and gear up to full speed in a couple of strides.

The Carolina Panthers’ candidates to succeed Ginn have looked anything but.

For the second consecutive practice, punt returners Kenjon Barner, Philly Brown and Antoine Cason struggled to hang on to the ball. Brad Nortman’s high, booming punts didn’t help matters, but it’s an area coach Ron Rivera acknowledged has to improve.

“The thing we have to understand is first and foremost, we’ve got to catch the ball,” Rivera said after Sunday’s full-pads practice. “That’s the biggest thing we have to emphasize with these guys – catch it. I could care less if we fair caught it every time, but we need to catch it.”

Ginn, who signed with Arizona as a free agent, averaged 12.2 yards per return and had several key runbacks during his only season in Charlotte. Rivera said the Panthers could look for help outside the organization but first want to give the internal candidates more chances.

Cason averaged 16.5 yards per return for San Diego in 2010 when Rivera was on the Chargers’ staff. Barner was known more as a kick returner than a punt returner at Oregon.

Brown had success returning punts at Ohio State, but his fumbled punt against Clemson in January helped key the Tigers’ comeback in the Orange Bowl.

“I know Antoine Cason can do it because I’ve seen him do it. He has that kind of ability,” Rivera said. “Philly Brown has an opportunity, as does Kenjon Barner. There are a few other guys that will be added to the mix as we go forward.”

Injury update: Backup tight end Brandon Williams and reserve safety Anderson Russell were carted off the field to be treated for cramps on a hot, muggy day.

Rivera said backup cornerbacks Josh Thomas (back) and Josh Norman (hamstring) should return to practice soon. Norman, who tweaked his hamstring during last week’s Fan Fest, said he hopes to be back by Wednesday.

Good guy Avant: Receiver Jason Avant has a reputation as being one of the NFL’s good guys, and a familial atmosphere in Carolina’s organization attracted him to the team.

Avant knew Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott from their time in Philadelphia. They were together with the Eagles from 2006 until McDermott, who held various assistant coaching jobs, was fired and joined the Panthers before the 2011 season.

McDermott played an integral role in Avant coming to Carolina. Avant said McDermott sold him on the Panthers striking the right balance between business and football.

“You can sit down and talk to (general manager) Dave Gettleman for 20 minutes each and every day and he’ll sit down and talk to you. You really don’t see access to GMs like that around this league,” Avant said. “Our head coach is in the locker room more than any other head coach I’ve had combined at any level.

“You feel like people care about you, which makes it a lot easier to catch that slant when it’s third-and-2 and the linebacker’s running at you, because you know the guys around you care.”

Coaches and teammates often refer to Avant as a good locker room guy. In 2010, he received the NFL’s Ed Block Courage Award, which honors role models.

Transactions: The Panthers signed two players – safety Tom Nelson and running back Fozzie Whittaker, who takes the roster spot of injured rookie running back Tyler Gaffney.

Whittaker, who was undrafted out of Texas in 2012, played in 14 games last season with San Diego and Cleveland. He was the Browns’ main kick returner, averaging 21 yards per return.

Nelson, who played 24 games in three years with Cincinnati and Philadelphia, was in Chicago’s camp last summer before being among the Bears’ final cuts.

Rivera said cornerback De’Quan Menzie, who was waived last week, decided to retire. Menzie, 24, seemed to confirm his retirement Sunday when he tweeted, “Officially done.”

Observations

• It was a big day for the tight ends. Greg Olsen, Brandon Williams and Ed Dickson had nice catches on deep passes. Williams and Dickson laid out to make their grabs.

• Second-year defensive tackle Kawann Short showed off a strong bull rush when he plowed over reserve tackle Oscar Johnson during one-on-one drills.

• Second-round defensive end Kony Ealy has played mostly with the third-team defense. He’s seen time on the second team opposite Mario Addison, but defensive end is a deep group for Carolina.

• Charles Godfrey, recovering from an Achilles tear last year, struggled in coverage at the nickel position. Rookie Kelvin Benjamin made two catches against him.

• Running back DeAngelo Williams dropped a swing pass from Cam Newton during team drills.

• Rivera said he didn’t watch one-on-one drills closely for the offensive tackles, but he does plan to name a starter after the second exhibition, against the Kansas City Chiefs.

• Backup quarterback Derek Anderson had little to no pocket with the second- and third-team lines. The defense is still ahead of the offense, and it’s most clear on the line.

• Cason had a nice pass breakup against Brenton Bersin on a throw from Anderson. He dove to get a hand on the ball near the sideline.

• Backup quarterback Joe Webb made a good zone read decision and kept the ball in team drills. There’s no hitting the guy in a red jersey, but he would have at least picked up a first down.

Getting to know ...

FB Michael Zordich

Ht./Wt.: 6-1/245

College: Penn State

NFL experience: 2nd season

The scoop: Zordich, whose father Mike was an NFL safety for 12 seasons, signed with the Panthers as an undrafted rookie in 2013. He tore his ACL covering a kick on the first play of last season’s exhibition opener against Chicago. Zordich was limited during organized team activities, but is back practicing. He’s competing with Richie Brockel for the backup fullback spot.

Twitter handle: @MichaelZordich

Recent tweet: If you want to be happy, be. – Leo Tolstoy

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson
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