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2023 Training Camp Observations: Day 3

Shaq Thompson

SPARTANBURG – Shaq Thompson had a big moment in front of a big crowd during the Panthers' third training camp practice, nabbing a pick-six off Bryce Young's hands in front of 15,267 fans at Wofford's Gibbs Stadium for Back Together Saturday — and then almost decapitating a teammate in the process.

That play capped off what's been a strong early showing for the defense through the early portion of camp. And the antics that followed Thompson's interception almost stole the show.

Thompson's end-zone celebration concluded with a playful punt, encouraged by Jaycee Horn, flying straight onto Brian Burns' helmet.

Burns was fine, but he played up the dramatics, lying on the field while Thompson pulled him up by the jersey.

"Jaycee said, 'punt it, punt it,'" Thompson said, laughing. "And Burns is right there. I was like, 'Oh sh—, I'm sorry.' Imagine if he didn't have his helmet on. I'd feel like an ass."

Thompson's no stranger to having a potential pick bounce off his hands, so coming down with the ball Saturday had to have boosted the veteran linebacker as he heads into his ninth year.

He isn't the only one in his position group making waves against the quarterbacks. Kamu Grugier-Hill has gotten to Andy Dalton passes twice, and CJ Henderson has snatched two interceptions himself – including a one-handed pick against Dalton on Saturday.

"I'm really happy with the playmaking that I've seen out here in this first block," head coach Frank Reich said. "Some big plays. Shaq had a big-time interception today, right in the team period. It was an unbelievable interception. The DBs have made the plays … Vonn Bell made a big break-up. Excited about that. I think that's going to be a good group for us."

There's a chance few are as hyped for the defense's success as the group itself. They've celebrated big plays in various ways throughout camp, from end-zone flash dances to Thompson's punt at Burns, which fortunately did no damage.

"As soon as he picked it, I was yelling, 'Boot it, boot it,' the whole time," Horn said with a laugh. "I guess that was a little bit of friendly fire. It happens.

"It scared (Burns) a little bit."

Perhaps that was the understatement of the afternoon.

— While the defense has made plays throughout camp, it's not like Young is struggling.

In fact, one of the eye-opening aspects of the offense's performance has been how routinely Young is able to move the ball downfield.

Deep connections with DJ Chark Jr. are becoming routine fan favorites, and Young has also shown the arm strength to overthrow receivers from time to time. It's one thing when it's 32-year-old Adam Thielen because you might be tempted to think he's slowing down (though he was never a burner when he was young). But Young also aired one past Jonathan Mingo on a sideline route. Obviously, the preference is to always complete every pass, but the misses have been instructive.

For all the discussion in the pre-draft season about his size, Young has plenty of arm, but the strength isn't the only factor.

He has the kind of anticipation to throw receivers open, which has led to a few nice gains in practice.

— The Henderson pick in on-on-one drills was a thing of beauty.

It appeared veteran wideout Damiere Byrd was positioned well to make the play, but Henderson went into the air, spun, and backhanded the ball to come down with it in one hand.

It was a more acrobatic play than Thursday's pick — when a route miscommunication had Young throw it directly to him, but coaches have been impressed with the way he's building on his physical gifts. On the Thursday pick, he baited Young a bit by not trailing the route as he might have expected (refusing to go where the quarterback thought he was going).

Henderson has always had talent, and he's playing with confidence at the moment. In a setting where he's the third behind Horn and Donte Jackson, that's a good thing.

— Outside linebacker Marquis Haynes Sr. wasn't on the practice field Saturday, and Reich said that he was dealing with a back issue. Reich indicated it wasn't a serious situation.

That would certainly help because Haynes is the most likely of the current options to start opposite Burns at outside linebacker. Yetur Gross-Matos worked with the starters in his absence, but Haynes is the more experienced and productive option.

— One other thing we've learned about Young, he's a big fist-bump guy. Will hit you with it when you're not expecting it.

But when he was left hanging by an area kid before practice, he had to improvise and fist-bump himself so he could get to work.

— We had our first good skirmish between teammates of camp. After outside linebacker Jordan Thomas put receiver C.J. Saunders on the ground, backup tackle Larnel Coleman intervened on his smaller teammate's behalf.

There was the obligatory shoving, no punches thrown, and Thompson eventually got between them and helped settle it down, with the two shaking hands.

— Veteran safety Vonn Bell was among the most active players in practice, breaking up a few passes.

When people describe him as a veteran or refer to his age, it creates the impression he's getting by on his intelligence. But make no mistake, he can still make plays among a bunch of high-end young talents in the secondary.

View photos of players arrive to practice with some special guests on Saturday.

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