CHARLOTTE -- Twelve months ago, the first-team offensive line wasn't merely getting to know each other, but was still learning where each of its members would line up.
There were a myriad of questions, and conventional wisdom dictated that all the answers might not come with so many new and repurposed parts being thrown together -- particularly in the area of a football team where continuity matters most.
But by December, any doubts had long since vanished. Vincent moved onto the first team three days into training camp and held down the right guard slot for the balance of the season. Around him, the line congealed into a seamless unit that helped the Panthers set a franchise single-season rushing record while allowing only 20 sacks.
If that's what this quintet could do after being blended for the first time at last year's training camp, what could it accomplish in its second season together?
"This is the first time I've been a part of this, having all five starters back," said Gross, the Panthers' longest-tenured offensive lineman. "At this time of year, you're usually taking baby steps."
"There's definitely an advantage having a group that's played together coming back," Kalil added. "For the most part, the starters that are in here now have been here since we installed this thing. It's just constantly building on what you know from the year before.
At this point you know how each other plays and you just try to understand something further that you didn't think you could get away with the year before, but it'll help your game that much more if you understand it a little bit better."
The cohesion that developed last year came in spite of a spate of minor injuries that began in Week 1, when Wharton and Otah missed parts of the win at San Diego. The line continued blossoming through hrough Otah and Kalil's ankle injuries, Gross' concussion, Wharton's slight knee injury and Vincent's season-ending groin injury in Week 15.
But the Panthers of last year possessed experienced depth. Geoff Hangartner and Jeremy Bridges had started in previous seasons. Only one start was made by a reserve who'd never started before -- when Frank Omiyale drew the left tackle assignment against Kansas City as Gross was sidelined for the first and so far only time in his professional career.
This year, not one Panthers reserve offensive lineman has starting experience, and only one was on the team's 53-man roster last year -- guard
"Staying healthy was an issue for every one of us last year, myself included. So that will be the test," Gross said during summer school. "Our starting five is good, but we've got a lot of novice people behind it -- with good potential, but they've definitely got something to prove.
Bernadeau is one of four Panthers reserves who have been through the drill before. But two of the other three only got as far as the practice squad last year --
They are players with pedigrees, but scant regular-season experience to draw upon.
"As it sits right now, we can't really afford to have anybody get hurt," Gross said. "Not to say anything bad against our backups, but that's just all so unknown. There's no established backup right now. Just as unique as it is to have all our starters back, it's the same with our depth so limited."
Faith in the reserves was justified last year. The Panthers hope that is the case again if their backups are needed -- particularly Schwartz and Bernadeau, both of whom were seventh-round selections in April 2008.
"Schwartz and Bernadeau look like they've come a long way," Gross said. "It's really going to be a huge role to fill, to be our swing guy inside and outside."
At least this offseason they've been able to focus on learning the game.
"A year into it, they know the routine, right down to who to talk to about getting gloves," Gross said. "I think that just makes you feel so much more comfortable in your own role. You're able to work on your football fundamentals without worrying about everything else."
Bernadeau distinguished himself enough last year to earn a spot on the Panthers' active roster, even though he didn't see any time on the offensive line. Schwartz was on the practice squad the entire season, while Palmer joined that eight-man squad in the regular season's final weeks.
But Schwartz has turned heads this year.
"He's the most improved player physically on our offensive line," said Gross, who noted that the Oregon product trained with him and Kalil. "I think he's got a shot at being a good tackle for us."
GREEN LIKE THE GRASS
Come to Spartanburg and you're bound to get more than a cursory glimpse at rookie offensive linemen, since they comprise 40 percent of the group. But only one of the six rookies was drafted -- guard
The balance of the rookies will be in a scrum for jobs during training camp. Three are tackles -- Central Florida's Patrick Brown, Penn State's
"It's a great opportunity, and a great honor. Obviously the coaches trust me," Brown said in June. "I've just got to keep fighting for that spot, because nothing's guaranteed right now."