CHARLOTTE – For a football fanatic like Luke Kuechly, there's no better present than the one he received on his 24th birthday Monday.
"I was excited to wake up and come in because I got to see everybody again," Kuechly said on the first day of the Panthers' nine-week offseason workout program. "I'm excited to be here."
Kuechly had been a regular around Bank of America Stadium even before Monday, having spent the bulk of his offseason in Charlotte. But on this day he was joined by his teammates that reside elsewhere in the offseason.
Kuechly likened it to the first day of school, an interesting choice of words for a guy who is two papers away from completing the requirements for his marketing degree from Boston College. Quarterback Cam Newton, who is taking classes at Auburn this semester in pursuit of his degree, also was in attendance Monday with the majority of his teammates for what amounted to the first team meeting of the 2015 season.
The message delivered at the meeting was a simple one.
"It's time to get better," running back Jonathan Stewart said.
"I feel good about the guys who were just sitting in that team meeting room," added tight end Greg Olsen, a regular in the locker room with Kuechly and others since the 2014 season ended. "From the front office down to the players, everybody feels good about this group."
The Panthers have reason to feel good. Carolina became the first team to win back-to-back NFC South championships last season thanks to a late-season run powered by the emergence of several young players to complement the established veterans.
Since the end of last season, the Panthers have re-signed several key veterans (Olsen, defensive tackles Colin Cole and Dwan Edwards among them) while adding several proven veterans (cornerback Charles Tillman, offensive tackle Michael Oher, wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr.). Next week, they'll further strengthen the roster via the NFL Draft.
"If you look at the way we're set up, we have a good group of guys back from last year, but we also have a good group of guys that we just added to the team," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "We're in a really good place. The fact that we were able to win back-to-back years, I definitely feel like we're a better team than we were last year at this time, but that is on paper.
"Now it's all about us going out and applying ourselves, and that first step starts today."
The voluntary offseason program starts with two weeks of strength and conditioning work in addition to meeting time. A three-week period will follow during which players can conduct on-field drills under the supervision of head coach Ron Rivera and his staff, though offense-versus-defense snaps and helmets aren't allowed.
The program will conclude with a four-week period in which just about everything but live contact is permitted. The period will feature 10 organized team activities (OTAs) over three weeks and a mandatory three-day minicamp the final week, concluding in mid-June.
"I'm ready for the first game, but we've got to go through OTAs and through camp," said wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who topped 1,000 yards as a rookie despite admitting that he hit a wall midway through the season. "You can't jump the gun, so I'm looking forward to getting there with the team, getting to work and seeing what we've got and what we need to improve."
It's still nearly five months before the Panthers open the regular season, so the pace won't be breakneck right away. That's just fine by Kuechly, who plans to use the slower pace to his advantage.
"It's about getting back into shape obviously – that's pretty self-explanatory – but the one thing I'll also look to do now is get to know the new guys," Kuechly said. "This period gives you a chance to do that. There's more time to talk to guys and hang out.
"The workout aspect obviously is important, but I'm also excited to meet all the new guys and see what they're all about."