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Combine notes: Students of the game


INDIANAPOLIS - Not long ago, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly were hot commodities among the underclassmen at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Now, as scores of underclassmen skip school to participate in this year's combine, Newton and Kuechly are back at school, working toward their degrees.

"I think it's awesome that Cam went back to school, that Luke Kuechly went back to school," head coach Ron Rivera said. "With these guys making a commitment to get their education, hopefully other young players and people will see the realization that it's important to have your education. It sets a good example."

While Newton has made "news" at Auburn for buying doughnuts and orange juice for his classmates and leading cheers at basketball games, things have been more low-key for Kuechly at Boston College.

"I just kind of blend in with everyone else," Kuechly recently told "It's neat to be around all of my friends again."

When Newton returns to Charlotte, his studies will continue with the introduction of a new playbook. It shouldn't be drastically different than the one he used last season, with former quarterbacks coach Mike Shula taking over as offensive coordinator following Rob Chudzinski's departure to become Cleveland Browns head coach.

"I wouldn't expect it to change an awful lot. The reason we hired Mike Shula to begin with was he shared a lot of qualities that Chud has," Rivera said. "But Mike has his own personality, his own distinctive attitude and idea about things. I really like the direction Mike's going to take this offensive unit."

Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman said the approach would resemble what the offense did down the stretch last season, when Newton's efficiency and an improved run game that featured more traditional power helped the Panthers win five of their final six games.

"Ten of the 12 teams in the playoffs this year had true pocket passers," Gettleman said. "The read option is an option, but at the end of the day your quarterback has got to make plays from the pocket."

QB QUESTIONS: While Newton in 2011 and Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III in 2012 were big stories at the combine as sure-fire early draft picks, the situation isn't nearly as clear this year.

Geno Smith from West Virginia could go to the Kansas City Chiefs with the No. 1 overall pick. Or, if the Chiefs and Arizona Cardinals at No. 7 decide they need an offensive lineman more than a quarterback, it's even possible that Smith could fall out of the first round.

On the other hand, Smith, Matt Barkley (Southern California), Mike Glennon (N.C. State) and Ryan Nassib (Syracuse) all are potential top-10 picks. That, of course, is why the draft is so fascinating.


FAST TIMES: A pair of position records in the 40-yard dash have fallen at the combine, with the record time regardless of position nearly falling.

Marquise Goodwin from Texas broke the wide receiver record with an official time of 4.27 seconds, just 0.03 seconds slower than Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson's record time in 2008.

Arkansas-Pine Bluff offensive tackle Terron Armstead set a position record with a 4.71, just ahead of the 4.72 recorded by Oklahoma offensive tackle Lane Johnson. Before this weekend, the top two times belonged to Philadelphia Eagles tackle Allen Barbre and Panthers tackle Bruce Campbell.

Defensive backs will take their shot at making history when the combine concludes Tuesday. Detailed combine records date back to 2006.

TOUGH TIMES: Three potential first-round picks didn't participate in drills at the combine – two by design, one by surprise.

Barkley had earlier announced he would wait for his pro day to throw after suffering a separated shoulder late last season. Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones, diagnosed with spinal stenonis at Southern Cal before transferring, isn't participating in drills to make sure he's in peak condition for his pro day.

The surprising development involved Utah defensive tackle Star Lutoleilei, a potential top-five pick who had a clean bill of health entering the combine but was diagnosed with a heart condition at the combine.

Lutoleilei's next move is to see a specialist. Doctors at last year's combine thought they spotted a hole in defensive end Frank Alexander's heart, but further examination showed no defect, and the Panthers selected him in the fourth round.


DEVILS DUO: Duke quarterback Sean Renfree also didn't participate in drills. He suffered a torn pectoral muscle on the final play of the Belk Bowl at Bank of America Stadium and doesn't yet know if he'll be able to throw at full strength before the draft.

"It's going to depend on how quickly my rehab goes. Everything's going really smooth," Renfree said. "I should be able to throw in the next month, and I might be 100 percent in the next two months."

While Renfree – who set a Belk Bowl record with 358 passing yards - will have to see if he's drafted or becomes a sought-after free agent, teammate Conner Vernon is expected to become the first Duke wide receiver drafted since Clarkston Hines in 1990. The ACC's all-time leading receiver, who had 10 catches for 119 yards in the Belk Bowl, is projected as a mid-round pick.

Duke, which played in its first bowl since the 1994 season, last had a player drafted in 2004.

DRAFT REDUX: The Panthers currently own five draft picks. They traded their third-round choice to the San Francisco 49ers during last year's draft in exchange for a fourth-round pick used to select Alexander. Prior to the start of training camp, they traded their seventh-round pick to the Oakland Raiders for wide receiver Louis Murphy.

Last season, all seven of the Panthers' picks contributed.

"I was real excited about the contribution that this past draft class made for us. Would I like to have one like last year's? Absolutely," Rivera said. "Starting with Luke, then Amini (Silatolu), Frank and Joe (Adams), and Brad Nortman having the type of year he did. Josh Norman started for us for a while, then D.J. Campbell rounded it out.

"I think it would be outstanding to have these guys emulate what we did last year."

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