Panthers pair mends in middle

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Nearly every single player has fled the blazing heat of the practice fields for the cool confines of the locker room, but Louis Leonard remains.

Several times over a 10-minute stretch, Leonard gets down in a three-point stance in front of a light stanchion, then pretends the ball has been snapped and throws his 325-pound frame around the stanchion and toward an invisible quarterback.

"Good thing it doesn't move," Leonard said. "What I was doing was working my steps. Having been out for almost year and having to stand upright – not being able to move down low – I'm just trying to get my hips back in it."

Leonard, coming off a fractured left ankle, and fellow defensive tackle Tank Tyler, coming off a knee injury, are doing everything they can to get back in it while trying to survive the Spartanburg summer.

The Panthers are banking on them being successful.

"We're being counted on a lot," Leonard said.

By this time last year, the Panthers already had lost Maake Kemoeatu in the middle of their defensive line, the victim of a torn Achilles on the first day of training camp. The Panthers traded a sixth-round draft pick to Cleveland for Leonard right before the start of the regular season, and midway through the season they added Tyler by shipping a fifth-round pick to Kansas City.

By that time, Leonard had joined Kemoeatu on the shelf, having gone down in Week 2. Tyler, six games into his time with Carolina, followed with his own injury.

This year, with Kemoeatu and last year's defensive tackle starters – Damione Lewis and Hollis Thomas – no longer on the roster, any repeat trips to the IR might hurt the Panthers even more.

As a result, the Panthers have taken it easy on Leonard and Tyler in practice, giving them some days off, but they're not taking it easy on themselves.

"I don't want to put too much pounding on it, but I am gradually moving into things and getting it right for the games," said Tyler, also a late departure from the practice field on the day that Leonard lined up against the lights. "I feel like I've come a long way. I feel pretty good. The knee is feeling better and better every day.

"It's all adversity, and adversity makes me a better man. I feel like I've learned a lot through this last year. I've been through a lot, but it has made me better."

Leonard and Tyler both still are learning defensive coordinator Ron Meeks' defense, both having come from 3-4 defenses into the Panthers' 4-3.

Both are glad to be here.

"When they told me I had been traded, it was kind of shocking, but when they told me I was coming home, I was excited," said Tyler, a Fayetteville, N.C., native and former N.C. State standout. "The feeling of being at home and getting some hometown love, and the feeling of being with these players, it's great.

"I'm working as hard as I can to be out there with them and give me best effort."

Leonard has no previous ties to the region – he's from Los Angeles and played at Fresno State – but he's quickly embraced Charlotte.

"Charlotte is a nice place with nice people and nice weather, a nice breeze and trees and clean air," Leonard said. "I'm happy I'm here. I'm happy that a lot of people are depending on me.

"I'm just going to do what I've got to do to shut up my critics and give the people what they want."

What the people and the Panthers want is one and the same – a performance from the defensive line that turns the loss of defensive end Julius Peppers into little more than a memory.

"We don't have any Pro Bowlers, so we have a lot of guys who need to prove themselves," Leonard said. "I think that's going to be the edge that we have."

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