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Panthers say their secondary could be second to none


SPARTANBURG, S.C. – The Panthers' secondary showed off its closing speed last season.

This season, the unit vows to show that it can be quick off the ball as well.

"Last year we started off the season real slow, and it kind of carried on, but we picked up at the end of the year and ended up at a good spot," safety Charles Godfrey said. "If we could have started it off right, we could have been at the top of the list on defense.

"We're not going to make that mistake this year."

Carolina ranked as one of just four NFL teams to allow less than 200 passing yards per game in 2009, and the Panthers tied for fifth in the league with 22 interceptions.

Yet even with those sparkling numbers, it was a tale of two halves.

The first eight games of the season when the Panthers were 3-5, the team gave up 196 points while forcing 15 turnovers. The final eight games of the season when the Panthers went 5-3, they yielded just 112 points while creating 22 turnovers.

So this season, the second one under ball-hawking defensive coordinator Ron Meeks, the secondary isn't waiting until midseason to get into midseason form.

In fact, this group isn't even waiting until preseason.

"We're trying to start fast, in training camp, by working on the little things -- breaking on the ball, running to the ball and creating turnovers," cornerback Chris Gamble said. "We've got to start it here, start fast, and then once preseason gets here, take it there and then take it into the season."

Perhaps more than any other unit on the defense, the Panthers' secondary appears equipped to pick up where it left off. While the defensive line lost Julius Peppers to free agency and the linebacker corps is without Thomas Davis for the foreseeable future because of a knee injury, the secondary returns three starters and a fourth player in safety Sherrod Martin who played close to starter's minutes last year.

Gamble and Richard Marshall are rocks at cornerback, having tied for the team lead with four interceptions each last season. Godfrey returns to his starting spot at safety and is now joined by Martin, who started five games in 2009 while Godfrey recovered from a hand injury.

"We've all got that bond with each other. We can relate to each other," Gamble said. "I think we've just got that chemistry."

The one loss to the starting unit is veteran Chris Harris, a vocal leader now in Chicago with Peppers. His departure has the secondary looking to Gamble, who is entering his seventh season, for leadership.

"I feel like it's my turn now to step up and be a leader and do a little bit of talking because we've got some young guys back there," Gamble said. "I've just got to man up and do what I've got to do. I've got to talk it up and step up."

Beyond the starters, there is a need to establish reliable depth, and training camp is off to a solid start in that regard. Captain Munnerlyn established himself as a capable corner by the end of his rookie season, and there are multiple others trying to earn their piece of the playing time pie.

"We've got a good, young secondary," head coach John Fox said. "Jordan Pugh is a draft pick that has picked things up pretty quickly, and we picked up a couple of guys -- Marcus Hudson and (Aaron) Francisco -- in the offseason and so far those guys are working very hard."

Mix in rookies R.J. Stanford and Robert McClain, a pair of corners taken in the seventh round of the draft who have caught Gamble's eye, and it's easy to see why the secondary could prove a primary strength for the Panthers.

"There's a lot of competition," Martin said. "Everybody is coming out and working hard, showing what we can do and making plays.

"Everything is coming together."

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