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Fan Fest: Keeping an eye on the ball


CHARLOTTE – For every fan that flocked to Bank of America Stadium for Fan Fest on a sun-splashed Saturday afternoon, there was a different agenda.

Some came to see Steve Smith snag balls lofted through the air by Cam Newton. Some came in hopes of snagging an autograph from Smith or Newton. Some wanted to see what the Panthers' rookies looked like. Some wanted to see what the TopCats looked like.

But all of the fans, for most of the practice, kept their eye on the ball.

It's a universal truth in sports (OK, maybe not in horseracing), and it's never more evident than at an NFL practice during training camp.

The quarterback, who touches the ball all the time, is almost always the center of attention. When that quarterback is as charismatic as Newton, he remains the center of attention after the balls have been stored in bags. That certainly was the case Saturday as Newton zigzagged across the new turf signing autographs.

Not many fans were screaming at the top of their lungs for kicker Graham Gano's autograph, but you can bet that when he drilled a 63-yard field goal – a length equal to the NFL record – fans followed the flight of the ball nearly as closely as they followed Newton's movements during autograph time.

And the very nature of practices this time of year - when passing drills most closely resemble game day - draws eyes to wide receivers and defensive backs. Saturday, those battles offered an eyeful.

Smith always commands attention, but Saturday he shared some highlight moments with a veteran who doesn't blink at his sight. In a one-on-one drill early in practice, cornerback Drayton Florence picked off a Newton pass intended but Smith, but later Smith made a magnificent catch in the end zone with Florence right there.

"We're always going back and forth, always competing," Florence said. "I'm always trying to get as many reps as I can against Steve, obviously one of the best receivers in the game, because if I go against him, that's obviously going to help me out once the season rolls around."

If the season started today, it looks like Florence – a veteran of 10 NFL seasons but a newcomer to Carolina – would be a starter.

"I feel like I'm doing what the coaches asked me to do," he said. "My veteran experience is the reason they brought me in here, and I'm sharing it with the young guys. We have a lot of guys who are athletic enough to play the position, but there are some little things I can help them with as far as alignment, route combinations and things like that. The young guys are taking it in well."

Wide receiver Armanti Edwards isn't a young guy anymore, and he continued to play like a veteran when he hauled in a 30-yard touchdown toss from Newton with cornerback Captain Munnerlyn draped all over him.

"It was a great throw by Cam," Edwards said, declining to properly pat himself on the back. "He put it where Captain couldn't get to it. It was either going to be incomplete, or I was going to catch it."

While Edwards continued to make his case, tight end Brandon Williams began building one in earnest. Williams, who has played college basketball more recently than college football, caught a pair of touchdowns from Jimmy Clausen as he works toward catching on even after missing organized team activities with a knee injury.

"It feels good to be out here, to even have this opportunity," Williams said. "With my situation, I feel like I've got to work 10 times harder than everybody else. I've been working my butt off and just trying to follow the guys that are in front of me."

The mere flight of the football shed light on a number of storylines Saturday, so it seemed fitting that the day's festivities closed with players signing balls for appreciative fans.

At the end of the day, everyone had a ball.

"We always like to have fun," Florence said. "We're in the middle of training camp, grinding, so it was good for us and for the fans at the same time. There was a lot of positive energy as we get ready for this first preseason game."

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