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Special time for special teams?

Posted Sep 7, 2017

Punter Michael Palardy is among several new faces focused on turning special teams into elite units across the board.

CHARLOTTE – Last weekend, Michael Palardy didn't want to get the call.

This weekend, he can't wait to get the call.

Last Saturday, Palardy and Andy Lee sat two lockers down from each other, waiting to find out who had won the Panthers' punting job and would kick in this Sunday's season opener at San Francisco.

"I remember sitting here in my locker, and we were all lined up, and they came and got Andy," Palardy said. "Then Andy came back down and told all of us, and we wished him the best. As the day went on, it really sunk in."

Palardy, a rookie in 2014 who had never punted in a regular season game before filling in for an injured Lee the second half of 2016, won the job over Lee, a 13-year veteran who has since signed with the Cardinals.

Sunday, Palardy will be one of the newer but certainly not the newest face when the Panthers open their regular season against the 49ers.

"It's something I've worked for the last three or four years, a big steppingstone in my career. But now I've moved on from it and am focused on Sunday's game," Palardy said. "I'm excited. This is my first time winning the job out of training camp and being the guy for Week 1, but to me it's another game. I'm not putting any added pressure on myself."

Special teams is a pressure-packed, underrated aspect of the game, and head coach Ron Rivera sounds confident that changes made from last season's roster give the Panthers a chance to be better in those areas.

"We feel very good, we really do," Rivera said. "I like the guys we brought in that have become a part of what we're doing, a whole bunch of new guys that we're counting on to step up big for us. Russell Shepard has really been a sparkplug for us as far as those guys are concerned. And then there are some stalwarts, some guys that have been a part of it in the past like Ben Jacobs and David Mayo – guys we really trust and we feel can be a big part of what we're going to do and how we want to do it.

"I also like the potential of our returners: Both Christian (McCaffrey) and Curtis (Samuel) give us something a little different, and Fozzy (Whittaker) is as explosive as anybody else."

While Samuel and Whittaker are kick return options along with speedster Damiere Byrd, McCaffrey was a highly successful punt returner in college and is poised to take over the role previously occupied by Ted Ginn, Jr.

The Panthers were a respectable 14th out of 32 NFL teams in kickoff return average last season but were 24th in punt returns and ranked dead-last in opponents' net punting average.

"I love returning punts," said McCaffrey, who averaged 11.2 yards per punt at Stanford. "Anytime I have the ball in my hands, I feel like I have an opportunity to make something happen. In punt return, there are a lot of plays to be made. If I'm back there, I'm going to give it all I have. I'm excited about it."

When the Panthers are the ones kicking, they have rock-solid long snapper J.J. Jansen back for an eighth season. Neither Graham Gano nor Harrison Butker got tapped on the shoulder during cutdown day, so the Panthers are headed toward the opener with two kickers. As for Palardy, special teams leader Colin Jones said the coverage units already have a comfort level with him.

The Panthers ranked 21st out of 32 NFL teams in the Dallas Morning News' annual special teams rankings in 2016. Sunday in San Francisco, where Jones played in 2011 and special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey coached in 2015, the Panthers hope to begin the process of improving.

"I'm excited," Jones said. "I think we've got some firepower in the return game and we've got some coverage guys that bring a veteran presence on the field and in the meeting room with T-Mac and (assistant) Chase (Blackburn) leading the way. Our hopes are high, and I think we're going to go out there and execute."