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Rivera, record crowd revel in first practice

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Head coach Ron Rivera huddled his team near midfield at Gibbs Stadium, the sun quickly setting but the record crowd behind him not waning in its enthusiasm.

"Nice job today," Rivera told his charges. "That's a good start to the season. That's what you've got to do."

With that, a successful first practice of training camp was in the books, and it was one for the record books. An unprecedented 22,445 fans attended Thursday's festivities that began with the Lowe's Kickoff Party and ended with an unofficial autograph party.

In between, the Panthers provided the entertainment on the field – and a first glimpse at what could be this upcoming season.

"Anytime you have the fans come out in droves tonight like they did tonight and bring the energy, that's exciting. I thought the players fed off it nicely," Rivera said. "And our star quarterback, of course, was excited. It's what we hoped for."

Quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly opened team drills with notable plays, and a couple of hours later they closed the proceedings along with Rivera, standing as the final three Panthers still signing autographs until after the sun had set.

Newton was on his game, both with his teammates and with the enthusiastic crowd. He further fired up the fans during an early break, and he thrilled them in between reps of a footwork drill by playing a game of catch with multiple spectators in the stands. At his prompting, they all (eventually) tossed the ball back his way.


When it came time to toss passes to his teammates, Newton rarely missed the mark.

"I thought he looked good, thought he threw some really nice balls," Rivera said. "He threw some of the sideline routes about as good as anybody can, especially throwing it from the far hash.

"He was on the money, and some guys made some really good plays."

The guys making plays on the ball were a big part of the story, especially given some of their backstories. Wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Stephen Hill, returning to the scene of horrific knee injuries suffered last year at training camp, took positive steps.

Benjamin snagged a Newton pass on the third play of team drills to thunderous applause, and Hill secured a deep ball versus tight coverage near the end of practice to a similarly warm reception.

"Kelvin looked good," Rivera said. "His retention as far as what to do, he handled that very well, and the way he ran the routes and attacked the football was good.

"And it wasn't just Kelvin. I thought Stephen (Hill) did some nice things after having had surgery was well. He's gaining confidence and strength in that knee, and it also speaks to what we talk about, that's it hard to defend big bodies."

The news wasn't as good for one of the Panthers' smallest receivers, as Tobais Palmer was placed on the physically unable to perform list. Palmer, an N.C. State product signed in May, had his Achilles tighten up following Wednesday's conditioning test.

Palmer's fellow receivers made plenty of plays against Carolina's young secondary, but Rivera also liked what he saw from the group – and not just on rookie cornerback Zack Sanchez's interception.

"Zack made a big play, and we were just a step away from making some very good plays," Rivera said. "It was good to see the young guys out there competing. That's the only way they're going to get better."

Rivera reiterated his pleasure with the team afterwards but also knows none of the 13 remaining practices scheduled for Wofford will be quite the same. Friday, the Panthers will relocate to their practice fields down the hill for a workout in the true heat of the day, starting at 3:10 p.m.

"The first practice is always high energy and thrilling. Then it wears off real fast, and the drudgery of camp begins to set in," Rivera said. "But it was a nice start for it. Setting the tone the way we did, our guys set a good example of the things we need to do and the way we need to practice to become a better football team."

View photos from Carolina's first practice of training camp.

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