SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Clearly, Panthers fans are glad football is back.
A record-setting 12,871 of them came to Wofford College for the Back to Football Party to watch the team practice Saturday night, and head coach Ron Rivera was glad to see them.
"It is exciting for us," Rivera said. "Our fans have some high expectations, and I told our players, 'Don't let their expectations be higher than ours.' It was a great atmosphere."
After fans enjoyed pre-practice activities, they settled into their seats at Gibbs Stadium for the main attraction -- the Panthers' first practice of training camp.
As expected, there were highs and lows.
"I can't wait to see it on tape because I know there are some really good things," Rivera said, "but there were a lot of bad things that we have to get corrected if we expect to be a playoff caliber team."
The night featured typical first-practice jitters – fumbled snaps, alignment issues and dropped balls.
But it also featured its share of strong points, including several takeaways by the defense.
"We are preaching playing with vision," Rivera said, "and as a result, you saw us intercept four balls today."
Safety Sherrod Martin, linebackers Luke Kuechly and Jon Beason (courtesy of a tipped ball by safety Charles Godfrey) and defensive tackle Sione Fua all recorded interceptions.
The offense countered with multiple big plays through the air.
Quarterback Cam Newton and wide receiver Steve Smith connected deep down the left sideline for the first long touchdown. Smith reeled in catches left and right throughout the session.
"Steve Smith looked as young as ever, and he was having a lot of fun out there," Rivera said with a smile, "so that's a huge plus for us."
Quarterback Jimmy Clausen tossed a couple deep touchdowns of his own later in the two-hour session, targeting wideouts Jared Green and Lamont Bryant for a pair of scores.
"Our quarterbacks threw the ball well," Rivera said. "I thought Jimmy did a real nice job in the seven-on-seven throwing the ball vertical."
Rivera added that Greg Olsen stood out during team drills. The tight end made several catches in traffic and was able to consistently provide a target for the quarterbacks.
Newton flashed his dynamic running ability on a designed keeper, generating boisterous cheers from the crowd. The second-year quarterback took off into the secondary and juked past Godfrey before waving to the crowd as he trotted out of bounds.
But the loudest cheers from the crowd came after Newton had taken off his helmet. He made his way to the bleachers after practice concluded and signed autographs for hoards of screaming fans.
Play 60 Family Fun Day will be held Sunday with practice set for 6 p.m. Rivera said the team will hold its first padded practice of training camp on Monday.