Otah embraces fresh start

SPARTANBURG, S.C. - No matter how many different ways Panthers right tackle Jeff Otah is asked about the past, he doesn't really have any interest in rehashing it.

"I'm trying to look past all the things that happened in the past," Otah said. "I never thought I'd miss the whole season, but it happened. What can I say?"

First-year head coach Ron Rivera, however, has a different perspective on the matter, because he'd like to see Otah's past - at least a specific portion of it - repeat itself in the near future.

While Otah has tired of questions about the lost year of 2010, when he unexpectedly missed the entire season with a knee injury, Rivera is fired up about the possibility of a repeat of the 2009 season, when Otah helped the Panthers' running game make history.

"All you've got to do is put the tape on and watch the '09 season versus the '10 season and you see a huge difference in what this offensive line can be and what we can accomplish as an offensive football team," Rivera said. "Two seasons ago, you had two guys rush for 1,100 yards. I think we have an opportunity to get ourselves back in that position.

"I see a big, powerful, physical football player (in Otah). I see an aggressive, attacking offensive front. Last year, things were different obviously because of certain situations. But when he's on the football field, it helps that group of guys, and I think their mentality and focus is a little bit different, too."

A year after the Panthers went 12-4 and running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart became the first tandem to top 1,100 rushing yards in the same season in NFL history, the wheels came off.

It started in training camp when Otah, who had missed the final three games of the 2009 season with a torn meniscus in his left knee, underwent arthroscopic surgery to clean up the knee. It was believed at the time that Otah might be ready for the regular season opener, but it never happened - for Otah or for the team.

Otah spent most of the regular season thinking he could make it back, but he eventually landed on injured reserve without playing a single snap. The Panthers went 2-14 in his absence, with the running game struggling for the majority of the season.

"It would have been nice if I could have been out there helping," Otah said. "It was very frustrating."

Even with the struggles of 2010, left tackle Jordan Gross and center Ryan Kalil managed to make the Pro Bowl. The Panthers have bigger names along the offensive front than Otah, but they don't necessarily have anyone that's a bigger deal than the 2008 first-round pick.

"It's great to see him back," Gross said. "He can be as good as he wants to be. He's big, strong, physical and can move, and he sounds like himself again. He makes our line so much better when he's out there. He's a difference maker."

Kalil agreed.

"Jeff really is a game-changing tackle," he said. "Watch him on film. You don't see too many tackles around the league that can come down on a guy, blow him up and then take out the linebacker in the same play. That's the kind of stuff he does that just makes run plays go a lot better. It's really nice having him back. He's that other piece that makes us have one of the best O-lines around."

Spartanburg is as hot as it's ever been during this training camp, a relentless heat that can get the best of any athlete and certainly take it out of a hulking offensive lineman.

Otah, however, doesn't look at it that way. After last season, he'd rather be sweating than sitting any day.

"This feels great," he said. "I love playing football. I love getting out there with my teammates and getting ready to go to battle again."

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