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Camp Observations: Offense goes to work in the red zone


SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Not only was Tuesday's practice the longest of training camp at Wofford College, it was also the most competitive.

It started with a bang (a number of them actually) and finished with some extra work on a day when the offense stood out in drills at the beginning and end of practice.

By the end, defensive end Brian Burns asked head coach Matt Rhule to extend the practice by a series because he wasn't satisfied with their performance.

"A lot of that was Burns," Rhule said. "I called the guys up before the last drive. He said, 'Nah, coach, can we run that back again?'

"That was a long day; that was our longest practice we've had, it was hot, and for a guy like Burns to say no, let's do it again, I think it's a great sign for his leadership."

It wasn't as great a sign for the defense through those bookend periods.

In the early practice segment, in which they set up two-point conversion plays from the 3-yard line, the offense scored on seven of the 11 snaps (split among the first, second, and third units).

Quarterback Baker Mayfield hit Ian Thomas for a score on the first play, and Chuba Hubbard followed by taking a toss sweep for a score on the second. They scored on two run plays when Sam Darnold was out there with the twos before Matt Corral scored on a nice bootleg to the left before finding Darius Bradwell with a clear path to the end zone. PJ Walker's one snap with the third offense saw his pass batted down at the line of scrimmage.

After calling everyone up after eight plays, they tacked on three more, with D'Onta Foreman getting into the end zone around the corner, before fullback Giovanni Ricciplunged up the middle for points (which was probably a safer alternative than running Christian McCaffrey in live work against his own).

That segment was a blend of misdirection plays and power (have we mentioned the offensive line has more talented players than last year?), and Rhule liked what he saw.

"The level of communication on defense down there, you have to pass things off quickly, and that has to improve," he said. "I liked some of the creativity we had on offense, putting the defense in a conflict.

"Those periods are particularly important to me. We call them two-point plays, but the decisions the head coach has to make is fourth-and-2 down there, and fourth-and-3, do I take the points or go for it, etc. So when you feel good about our ability to score, it makes those decisions easier. It was a good first time doing that."

At the end of practice, both Mayfield and Darnold got their respective units in the end zone when given the ball with 30 seconds left and one timeout, needing a touchdown to win.

Mayfield's came on a nifty catch-and-run by DJ Moore, while Darnold threw a strike to Brandon Zylstra coming across the middle of the end zone.

"Both quarterbacks got us in the end zone, which was impressive," Rhule said of the intense work to close the session. "I liked the way it felt on the field. I'll turn on the tape, and it's great to have effort and intensity, but if you don't have execution, none of it matters. The touchdown throws, I'll have to see what happened.

"I'm Switzerland; I'm fired up the offense made those throws, defensively upset we gave up those. It's about correcting."

— The day also included some injuries, though Rhule didn't have any immediate updates.

Thomas took a hard shot to the ribs late, and got a ride off the practice field. Wide receiver C.J. Saunders had a muscle strain in his leg, while defensive end Jacob Tuioti-Mariner got his knee rolled on, and he had to be carted off, in apparent pain.

Tight end Colin Thompson was in a red jersey alongside cornerback Keith Taylor Jr. and wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr., and Thompson had a boot on his left foot while he worked on the side.

Offensive lineman Dennis Daley and tight end Stephen Sullivan remain out with excused personal absences.

— While there were some missing players, there were also some happy returns.

Defensive end Marquis Haynes Sr. was back on the field and in full pads after his knee injury scare Saturday. He was in a red jersey Monday but made a quick comeback.

Cornerback Jaycee Horn also continued to add to his workload, working through a pair of red zone drills before trying to sneak onto the field for a two-minute period. It didn't last, as they pulled him out before he overdid it, as he comes back from foot soreness.

They feel good about his healing from last year's broken foot, and his time off in camp was more about muscle issues, and Rhule liked that he's ready to do more. They're trying to get Horn some full-speed work in concentrated doses without having him go right into covering 60 yards downfield on every play.

"I had to be the bad guy and kick him out," Rhule said with a laugh of pulling Horn from a period he wasn't scheduled to participate in.

— Wednesday's final practice of camp (which has been moved up to 9 a.m.) will feature a lot of reps for the third-string players, who generally don't get as many chances.

That means Corral and Walker will get a lot of work in the final sessions (which is scheduled to end around 10:30 a.m.)

— Rhule said "some starters" will play in Saturday's preseason opener at Washington, but he didn't have the particulars of his quarterback rotations. While these things tend to get decided closer to game-day, he said it was less likely that many starters would play in the second preseason game at New England since they will have gotten a lot of reps in two days of joint practices with the Patriots.

— Veteran cornerback Donte Jackson laughed when asked about Burns asking for extra work at the end of a long day.

"That was definitely a Brian Burns move, sore loser," he said. "So we kind of expected it. I could see the way he was walking. When coach called it up, his face was like...

"So we were like, 'get ready, y'all, don't untie your cleats.' That was definitely a Burns move, and we expected him to want to run it back."

— Mayfield has had some highlights throughout camp, but Tuesday was his most consistent day of work. You can tell he likes the combination of working with the first line and throwing to guys like Moore and Robbie Anderson.

Rhule said Monday that Mayfield and Darnold generally go back and forth having good days, but this one clearly was to Mayfield's advantage (though Darnold continued to move the ball at times).

— Ricci made a few nice plays on the day. The tight end/fullback hybrid also took away a contested pass from safety Juston Burris, showing good strength with his hands across the middle.

He's a unique player who plays a number of roles and also has a high value on special teams.

— Rashard Higgins and Mayfield know each other well from Cleveland, and they connected again Tuesday. Higgins went high over the middle to haul one in, continuing to make plays he'll need.

The Panthers receivers room is deep, as there are probably eight or nine guys fighting for five or six spots. But Higgins has flashed, complicating things for the remaining guys fighting for roles.

View some of the best photos from training camp from photographers Chanelle Smith-Walker and Kenny Richmond.

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