SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Just for laughs, fullback Mike Tolbert accompanied running back Jonathan Stewart to his press conference Sunday, acting as his bodyguard for a salary of 78 cents a day.
A reporter asked if Tolbert was there to protect Stewart from the media.
"Yes," Stewart said. "Just in case you throw darts."
These days, everyone is throwing compliments Stewart's way.
With longtime running mate DeAngelo Williams out of action, Stewart rushed for 486 yards over the final five games of the 2014 regular season – five yards shy of leading the NFL – to spearhead the Panthers' unlikely run to the playoffs.
Now Williams is out of the picture, having been released by the Panthers before signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers. For the first time in Stewart's eight NFL seasons, he's alone at the top of the depth chart.
But he isn't alone.
"It's different with him not being here," Stewart said. "He's the leading rusher in the history of the Carolina Panthers. He has made an impact. When you have a guy like that leave, it's obviously going to be a different feel, but our coaching staff knows what they're doing.
"Even though DeAngelo is gone, our group still has the same mindset. Nothing really changes."
That mindset, Stewart explained, is for each individual running back to prepare as if he's a starter – even though they all know that Stewart is.
"If you're not practicing and preparing to be a starter, then what are you practicing for?" Stewart said. "You have to have that mentality because you never know when your number is going to be called, and your team is depending on you."
And you never know when the injury bug is going to strike, especially at such a physically demanding position.
Prior to his explosive finish, Stewart missed three games with a knee injury – the third consecutive season he's missed time. But Stewart said he's as healthy at the beginning of training camp as he's been in a long time, and his faith in guys like Tolbert and Fozzy Whittaker is strong. The same goes for the newcomers in the running back room, guys like free agent signee Jordan Todman, sixth-round draft choice Cameron Artis-Payne and undrafted rookies Lee Ward and Brandon Wegher.
"We've got a lot of talent and football-smart guys," Stewart said. "Me, Tolb and Fozzy being the vets of the group and the rest of the guys being young, it's surprisingly a good fit right now.
"Those guys understand the end goal, which is to win games."