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Offensive line coach James Campen: "We're making bigger strides early"

James Campen

CHARLOTTE – James Campen is reaping the benefits of stability.

The Panthers' offensive line coach heads into his second year at Carolina with a room full of familiar faces. All five members of Carolina's starting line from last year are locked in for another season, and they re-signed veteran swing tackle Cameron Erving and backup guard Michael Jordan for insurance, along with Justin McCray, whom Campen familiar with from several previous stops.

Campen said in Wednesday's press conference that continuity has helped the early offseason programs run smoothly with their new additions, including fourth-round draft pick Chandler Zavala, a former teammate of starting left tackle Ikem Ekwonu from N.C. State. 

"The one advantage going into the second year with the same group, you're not having to teach the new drills and all that again, so they can kind of go into things a lot quicker," Campen said. "As a group, we're making bigger strides early. And I think that obviously helps the new guys coming in because now they can see it being done the correct way. Now it's all refining."

The Panthers are solidified at the tackle spots, with Taylor Moton coming into his seventh year at Carolina having played every offensive snap since 2020. Campen is also impressed by Ekwonu's development in his second year, seeing the work he put in before returning for the offseason program this spring.

Campen said Ekwonu has improved as a pass protector, something that they'd worked at in the early days of his rookie year at this point last season. Ekwonu remained a mainstay at left tackle throughout his first season, and he came into his second offseason prepared. 

"He is so far ahead of where he was last year, and that's a testament to him," Campen said. "He'd done work in the offseason before coming back. … He's sitting on the line. He's fluid. He's asking for change-up things to do with his hands. He's way ahead of where he was last year."

That's not to neglect an obvious damper – the Panthers' two starting guards sustained injuries in last season's finale. And while Brady Christensen has participated in a limited capacity throughout voluntary veteran minicamp and offseason workouts following ankle surgery, Austin Corbett's ACL tear has him on a long road to recovery.

Campen said they're moving forward from the injuries, and he's excited about the competition for spots across the line. Without knowing who will be available to what extent for training camp and beyond, Campen has focused on developing the group as a whole.

And yes, there are plenty of guards to instruct for a shot in potential fill-in roles.

Zavala impressed everyone from general manager Scott Fitterer to the area scouts in this draft cycle, Campen said, and he checked boxes as an aggressive finisher throughout. Cade Mays has the benefit of a year in the system, though their relative health meant he didn't get many reps (other than as a fullback) last season.

But they're not the only ones with potential in the middle. Campen said he also sees potential in third-year guard Deonte Brown and undrafted free agent signings Nash Jensen, J.D. DiRenzo, and Ricky Lee.

And the new guys in town have been doing the work outside the building too.

"There's a lot of good ballplayers right there in the middle," Campen said. "It's going to be a lot of fun to see how it shakes it because they're all competitive. They're all tough. …

"(The rookies) are studying together in the hotel across the street, and it's evident because when you come in – we have rookie meetings and extra time with them (that) we're allowed to – they're answering questions. As a coach, you really like that they're self-starters, self-motivated. Competition is going to be very, very high this year."

The Panthers resumed offseason workouts with veterans and rookies on Tuesday.

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