SPARTANBURG Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart needed to get hit Monday.
Stewart had not practiced in full pads since late last year after dealing with knee and hamstring injuries, and Monday’s practice gave him just what he wanted.
“Yeah as a day, I think it was a good first step,” he said. “There are definitely things I want to improve on and get my legs back under me, going through contact. But it was a good first step.”
Stewart practiced for the first time this training camp Sunday after battling a hamstring injury, though the players wore helmets and shorts. Monday, he played against the first- and second-team defense as he tried to return to game shape.
“We took a few shots at him. He took a few bumps, hit the ground a couple of times but he popped up and kept going. That’s good,” coach Ron Rivera said. “This is what we saw in (organized team activities) and minicamp was that kind of effort and hopefully it continues, and that way we can get him in the game on Sunday.”
Stewart pulled his hamstring while training a week before camp, and he piled two weeks worth of missed training camp practices onto a heap of missed practices he’s collected over the years.
Toe, ankle and knee injuries have kept him sidelined in practice for the better part of the past two seasons. He went from averaging 4.8 yards per carry in his first four seasons to 3.6 yards in the past two.
In OTAs this summer, he said he was feeling the best he had felt in at least three years. Returning from the injury that slowed him the past three weeks, he reiterated that sentiment Monday.
“My run motion coming out the gate, making cuts, all that stuff, is as fluid as I’ve been in a while, which is good,” Stewart said. “I don’t have to second-guess anything.”
Stewart’s return will lighten the load for the other running backs this preseason. DeAngelo Williams has taken the lion’s share of first-team reps, and he had performed so well in camp that Rivera let him sit out Friday’s exhibition against Buffalo.
Second-year running back Kenjon Barner got more work Friday than he had in any exhibition or regular-season NFL game – and turned eight carries into 8 yards. Rookie Tyler Gaffney injured his knee on his first play of training camp and was eventually signed by the Patriots off waivers when the Panthers wanted to place him on injured reserve.
Stewart admitted feeling some guilt for his backfield teammates having to shoulder the load in his absence.
“Whenever I’m not practicing, I know the reps go to somebody,” Stewart said. “But I mean at the same time it’s out of my control. And they understand that too. We just have to be pros about it and go about our business.
“But definitely when I’m sitting there rehabbing when I could be doing what I want to do, that’s definitely something on my mind.”
With Stewart healthy, the three-headed backfield monster of Stewart, Williams and Pro Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert unite once again to form what Stewart considers the deepest backfield in the NFL.
Stewart looks to return to the glory of the 2009 season when he and Williams became the first and only running back tandem to rush for more than 1,100 yards each in the same season.
But Stewart has dealt with injury after injury, and Williams is the fifth-oldest player on the team at 31. This running back group might be deep, but is it the best in the NFL?
“Yes,” Stewart said, followed by a long pause. “That’s a bad question.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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