The Panthers experienced perhaps the most competitive practice of training camp Saturday, with the trash talk and hits culminating with a goal-line stand by the first-team defense.
In team drills on fourth-and-inches from inside the 1, Cam Newton handed the ball off to fullback Mike Tolbert, who was met in the backfield by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and stopped shy of the goal line.
“I thought initially the offense got the best of it and then at the very end you saw what happened with Luke and the defense. They rose to the occasion,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “It’s good to see us at that point doing things that make us better as a football team.
“The Panthers won today.”
During team drills near midfield, Newton completed two passes to Kelvin Benjamin, both across the middle of the field. Kuechly stomped his feet and threw his hands in the air in frustration on the second completion, one where Benjamin slipped behind Kuechly in coverage.
Tiquan Underwood hauled in a catch at the sideline for one of his best catches of the camp. That got the Panthers within the 10-yard line, and that’s when the shouting began.
Left tackle Byron Bell and linebacker Thomas Davis jawed back and forth. Coaches shouted to stay focused but neither player relented. On third-and-goal from the 1, Newton handed off to Tolbert, who was stopped short of the end zone.
Newton and defensive end Frank Alexander began trading barbs. Davis continued to shout promises of the defense stopping the offense.
Rivera said he was unpleased with all the trash talk.
“It’s great for the enthusiasm but you don’t want to have anybody’s feelings hurt as far as that’s concerned,” he said. “You don’t want it to get a little extra something going on, and we had a little something something. I was concerned with that and tried to get everybody refocused and hey, let’s get better as a football team.”
Newton handed off to Tolbert, who tried the left side of the line. Kuechly had bolted through the line after Trai Turner pulled from right guard and missed his block, and the linebacker struck Tolbert behind the line of scrimmage. The fullback made a futile attempt for the goal line, but he was already down and the defense had started celebrating.
“It’s a very big statement because to be quite honest the offense was getting after the defense and they needed to make something happen, and they did,” Rivera said. “That was good to see. You saw even Cam got fired up about it. That’s’ what a guy like that does for your team.”
The fourth-down stop was reminiscent of the Pro Bowl finale. Tolbert scored a 1-yard touchdown with 41 seconds remaining by beating Kuechly near the goal line.
“So now it’s 1 Tolbert, 1 Kuechly,” Rivera said.
Tough love: Rookie defensive end Kony Ealy had a tough time at practice Saturday.
Going against Canadian tackle David Foucault, Ealy was stymied time and again in team drills at the end of practice, and his emotions clearly boiled over.
Tight end Greg Olsen shouted at Ealy to calm down. Then other offensive players in white jerseys joined in. Newton went the hardest at Ealy, saying, among other things, the second-rounder was tired.
“We saw Kony Ealy working through it,” Rivera said. “You saw Cam trying to push him through it. You’re seeing guys trying to push the young guys. They know how important these young guys are, and they’re going to get opportunities to play for us.”
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said the team had Ealy graded as a first-round prospect, but the former Missouri defensive end fell in the draft all the way to No. 60. Ealy hasn’t looked as good as first-rounder Kelvin Benjamin or third-rounder Trai Turner so far in camp, and Rivera said Ealy still has a lot to learn about how to practice. But the coach did say he’s seen good things from Ealy.
“The nice part was Cam went up to him afterwards and put his arm around him and said that’s it. This is what you’ve got to learn to do. You’ve got to learn to push,” Rivera said. “Quite honestly, things have been easy for him because he’s such a good football player. He had a great college career. You get up here and it’s a different game.
“There’s a lot of pressure for guys to perform, and it was great to see somebody put pressure on him and then go up and put his arm around him and hug him and say, ‘Hey, you’re going to get it kid.’ He did some nice things and I’m real excited about watching his tape.”
Injury update: Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy missed practice with a shoulder contusion. He was still involved in practice and wore his jersey despite not participating on the field.
Rivera did not have a timeline for Hardy’s return.
Defensive end Charles Johnson tweaked his hamstring and missed the second-half of practice. Alexander and Mario Addison got the first-team reps.
Cornerback Charles Godfrey experienced soreness in his Achilles, which he tore in Week 2 last year, and did not practice.
Running back Kenjon Barner (legs), safety Roman Harper (rest), safety Tre Boston (groin), defensive end Wes Horton (groin), guard Garry Williams (knee) and linebacker Craig Roh (ankle) did not participate.
Safety Thomas DeCoud (leg) returned to practice, as did cornerback Josh Norman (hamstring).
Linebacker Jason Williams hurt his right ankle during practice and did not return. Defensive tackle Drake Nevis was carted off the field early in practice but returned with his left leg taped.
Observations• A day after getting two interceptions and three pass breakups, rookie cornerback Bene’ Benwikere had a tip-drill interception after Colin Jones batted a Newton pass away from Greg Olsen.
• With Barner out, Benwikere also got to see time at punt returner. Benwikere, who had experience in college as the fair-catch guy, fielded both punts. Antoine Cason dropped one. Philly Brown was two-for-two.
• Newton ran to congratulate tight end Mike McNeill on a goal-line touchdown, but McNeill didn’t seem very excited to celebrate. Newton pleaded with an official to throw a flag for lack of celebration.
• Defensive tackle Kawann Short burst through the middle to pressure Newton, who threw a screen to DeAngelo Williams. Williams dropped the pass.
• Receiver Jerricho Cotchery had his right hand/wrist looked at by head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion after he fought for Benwikere’s interception.
• Right tackle Nate Chandler used textbook punching on defensive end Alex Hall during team drills. Chandler kept Hall at bay by using consecutive punches with alternating hands.
• Benwikere went after tight end Brandon Williams, who is the most muscular Panthers player. He popped Williams twice, and though Williams hardly budged after taking the hit, it said a lot for the much smaller rookie to go up against Williams rather than let him go by.
• Former Summerville (S.C.) and Clemson standout Keith Jennings attended practice Friday. Jennings played tight end for the Bears from 1991-1997, and Rivera either played for, covered or coached the Bears during that span.
Three Questions with …
QB Joe Webb
Q: How have you liked having another Alabama-Birmingham guy (undrafted running back Darrin Reaves) in camp?
A: It feels good to see another Blazer. You don’t get to see too many of those guys in the NFL, not besides Roddy White. It feels good to be beside another Blazer, especially in the same backfield.
Q: How did you think Reaves has looked so far?
A: I think he’s doing good. I think he’s running the ball strong. I think he’s doing a good job picking up the offense. I make sure I help him out, too. I can’t have a fellow Blazer out there looking crazy.
Q: How’s it been running the read option in place of Cam Newton?
A: It’s been good. I’m kind of familiar with the read option because that’s what we did at UAB when I was in college. It’s pretty much like getting back on that bike and start riding again.
Getting to know…
DT Colin Cole
NFL experience: Ninth year
The scoop: Cole started 13 games for the Panthers last season along the defensive line. He’s sure to make the team because the coaches like his experience and able to eat up blockers along the line. At 34, Cole is the oldest player on the team, but he complements Star Lotulelei well.
Twitter handle: @ColinCole91
Recent tweet: Real difficulties can be overcome; it is only the imaginary ones that are unconquerable.
Staff writer Joseph Person contributed.