Focus turns to mental game in prep for preseason

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – The Panthers put the pads away one day after things got a little heated on the practice fields at Wofford College, but the lack of jarring hits didn't mean progress wasn't made.

The toning down of the physicality Wednesday had nothing to do with Tuesday's "small melee" as head coach Ron Rivera described it. Rather the change came as a result of the preseason opener being right around the corner, with the Chicago Bears set to visit Bank of America Stadium on Friday.

"We were out of pads, starting to gear up toward Friday," Rivera said. "We want to give them an opportunity to get their legs back more and really have them focus on the mental aspect of the game.

"We're trying to guess pretty much what Chicago is going to be because they're a new staff and get some reps against what we think they're going to be, and then the second half of the practice was competing against ourselves. That's when the tempo really picked up."

Defensive players had to settle for hypothetical hits Wednesday. When, for example, wide receiver Dale Moss caught a pass over the middle as linebacker Chase Blackburn closed in, safety Mike Mitchell congratulated Blackburn for a "nice hit" even though he pulled up and didn't make contact.

Non-contact play isn't really a favorite for the ultra-physical Mitchell, who has become the favorite at this juncture for the starting job at strong safety.

"He's one of those guys that when you put the pads on, his play really starts to step up," Rivera said. "The things he does, he does better in pads. He gets a rhythm when he gets in pads.

"During OTAs and minicamp I know he got kind of frustrated because he didn't have the opportunity to make the kinds of plays he normally does, so it's good to see that now. He's kind of separated himself a little bit from the bunch. We'll see how he is though once we start playing."

Wide receiver Steve Smith and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards got a veteran's day off, and several players who have been out of action continued to be: running back Jonathan Stewart (ankle), linebacker Jon Beason (knee), guard Edmund Kugbila (hamstring), fullback Mike Tolbert (hamstring), cornerback Josh Thomas (abductor muscle), center Jeff Byers (knee), tight end Zack Pianalto (quad) and wide receiver James Shaw (hamstring).

The Panthers will practice Thursday at 9:15 a.m. in Spartanburg before heading to Charlotte in advance of Friday's game.

FAMILIAR TERRITORY: Tight end Ben Hartsock isn't surprised that things got a bit testy at practice Tuesday. The veteran of nine previous training camps has seen it before.

"This is always the time of the year – the second week of camp – where everybody is dragging a little bit, tired of banging into each other," Hartsock said. "Everybody is champing at the bit to face Chicago."

Hartsock believes a few more passes may come his way this season (he has just 31 career receptions), but he has no illusions that he's going to extend his NFL career simply by catching a few more balls. He's a blocking tight end first, and there's still a place for that.

"You learn that if you're not going to be a stat guy, you have to find ways to earn respect," Hartsock said. "For me, that's by gaining the respect of the offensive line and the offense in general as reliable, to hold up at the point of attack against linebackers and defensive ends, and to run block and pass protect.

"Then occasionally you can get out and get a little sugar, get a ball thrown to you every once in a while."

FAMILIAR TERRITORY, PART II: Former Wofford wide receiver Brenton Bersin tied Jerry Richardson's school record of nine receiving touchdowns in 2010.

Wednesday, Bersin caught a bunch of balls and the eye of Rivera.

"We're seeing a guy who has the ability to get his hands on the ball and make good catches and plays," Rivera said. "He made a couple of big catches in the two-minute drill, including a touchdown. He has come a long way and has done some good things.

"He's a solid football player. We'll really judge him as we get into these preseason games."

Bersin, a Charlotte native, also participated in Panthers training camp last season.

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