SPARTANBURG, S.C. - This time last year, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was trying to learn the names of all his players.
Friday, when he addressed the media on the eve of the first practice of training camp, Rivera said his focus is on the Panthers making a name for themselves.
"Our guys have gotten to the point, based on how we finished last season, that we're ready to take another step, and we need to," Rivera said. "We've got enough quality football players on this team, enough veteran leadership on this team, that there's no reason for us not to improve as we head into the 2012 season."
The Panthers lost 10 of their first 12 games during Rivera's rookie season on the sideline, which started in earnest at training camp after he had little opportunity to get to know his players during the NFL's protracted work stoppage.
His inaugural team, however, won four of its final six games to finish 6-10, a four-win improvement over the previous season.
Last year's camp featured a battle at quarterback between 2011 No. 1 overall draft pick Cam Newton and incumbent starter Jimmy Clausen. Newton went on to win the job and NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, but Rivera said Newton is looking at camp as just as competitive a situation as the one he faced as a rookie.
"Cam said it best: 'I need to make sure I keep pushing myself,' " Rivera said. "When you look to see which positions are comfortable, hopefully none of them are. They all want to compete.
"I think the only one that's not competitive is our snapper. J.J. (Jansen) is pretty solid in that position - unless I come out of retirement. It should be a very competitive camp."
Rivera was asked what best summarizes his hopes for his second training camp and beyond.
"Growth," he said. "Absolute growth."
SPEAKING OF GROWTH:** Wide receiver Cam Newton showed up at Wofford sporting an uncharacteristic amount of facial hair.
The bearded look might be here to stay – for a few months at least.
"Once we broke (minicamp last month), I shaved one good time and then I said, 'You know what, let me see how far I can go,' " Smith said. "Then one of my buddies came over to the house and he said, 'Man, I wish I could grow my beard like that.'
"That inspired me. My wife was urging me to shave it, but I'm growing it because I was inspired to grow it."
In his first comments to the media at training camp a year ago, Smith referenced his age several times. Now 33, it didn't come up Friday – not directly at least.
"I've got some areas on the top of my head that don't grow as well," Smith said.
AT HOME IN THE HEAT: Fullback Christian McCaffrey certainly enjoyed the idyllic climate of San Diego over his first four NFL seasons, but he's no stranger to the heat and humidity synonymous with the Southeast this time of year.
"You kind of get spoiled out there, but I still have family in Georgia and go home all the time," Tolbert said. "I'm a Southern boy at heart."
A native of the Atlanta suburb of Douglasville, Tolbert played college football at Coastal Carolina. He went from being an undrafted rookie to being a very effective runner with the Chargers, and now he's enjoying a homecoming of sorts.
Tolbert said he really noticed the heat taking hold Thursday in Charlotte, but he's ready for more of the same – and then some – in Spartanburg.
"I'm in shape and ready to go," he said.
SOUTH CAROLINA TO HONOR PANTHERS: The Panthers and Wofford will get a visit Monday from South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley to recognize owner/founder Jerry Richardson and proclaim Carolina Panthers Day across the state.
"For two decades, South Carolina has wrapped its arms around the Carolina Panthers," Gov. Haley said in a release. "We're proud of what owner Jerry Richardson and the Panthers have achieved and what they have meant to Wofford College, the Spartanburg community and our entire state."
Monday's event - which is open to the public - will be held at 6 p.m. at the Richardson Physical Activities Building on the Wofford campus.
On Oct. 26, 1993, the NFL awarded an expansion team to Richardson and the Caorlinas. The team played its inaugural season at Clemson Memorial Stadium in 1995, and Wofford has hosted Panthers training camp since the team's inception.
SATURDAY SCHEDULE: The Panthers will kick off training camp in grand fashion Saturday with a Back to Football Party before their first practice. Admission is free.
Practice starts at 6:30 p.m. at Gibbs Stadium, but fans are encouraged to arrive early for all the festivities, which will kick off at 4:30 p.m. in the stadium plaza. The party will include live entertainment from the band Back Nine, performances by the TopCats, Sir Purr and PurrCussion, the Mayor's Ball Run delivery, face painting, food, giveaways and more.
Staff writer Max Henson contributed to this article.