Strickly Panthers: Full strength

SPARTANBURG, S.C. - Some Panthers had been waiting all week for this moment.

Linebacker Omar Gaither had been waiting a lot longer than that.

The NFL's new league year officially began Thursday - the same day the players ratified the Collective Bargaining Agreement - finally clearing the way for veteran free agents who signed with the Panthers to take to the practice field.

Nearly a week into training camp at Wofford College, the 21 Panthers in action for the first time included the likes of running back DeAngelo Williams and defensive end Charles Johnson.

The group also included Gaither, a Charlotte native who had played his first five NFL seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles.

"I've been dreaming of wearing that Panther helmet since I was a little boy watching Sam Mills and Lamar Lathon and those guys. It's a great feeling," Gaither said. "It seems like it was forever, but now it seems like it was only a minute. I'm glad we're finally out here."

The wait for fellow linebacker James Anderson - who re-signed with the Panthers rather than going elsewhere as a free agent - hadn't been quite as long, but it sure felt like it.

"It's been more than six months since the whole team has been together in pads, so it was good to get a feel for the new guys and get out there with the fellas," Anderson said. "I've been champing at the bit. It was good to get out there, run around and hit a few people, to actually get winded playing football."

Anderson said this team has a "renewed energy," something the returning veterans certainly needed to survive the high humidity that blanketed the practice field Thursday evening following an afternoon storm.

"It was really humid out here, but all the vets that were coming back pushed through it," Gaither said. "I think we had a great practice, and I think we're heading in the right direction toward building something special."

The one Panther eligible to begin practice but didn't was linebacker Jon Beason, who has been bothered by an Achilles injury according to head coach Ron Rivera.


NUMBERS GAME: Wide receiver Armanti Edwards probably signed a hundred autographs following Thursday's practice.

Every time he put pen to paper, he had to remind himself: "Sign No. 14, not No. 10."

"I've just got to get back used to it," Edwards said. "It felt like college."

A couple of hours earlier, Edwards emerged from the Richardson Building wearing No. 14 - his number at Appalachian State - rather than the No. 10 he sported in his rookie season with the Panthers.

Edwards said the change had more to do with the Panthers' new kicker, Olindo Mare, than it had to do with him. Mare, listed as No. 6 on the roster before taking part in his first practice Thursday, is now wearing No. 10 again - like he has almost his entire career.

To make the changes possible, wide receiver Brandon Smith - an undrafted rookie out of Arizona State - gave up No. 14 and switched to No. 8.

"He always wore 10, and he's superstitious about it," Edwards said. "The time he didn't wear it, he got hurt, so we worked something out."

When Edwards joined the Panthers, quarterback Hunter Cantwell wore No. 14.

"It didn't matter," Edwards said. "When 14 wasn't open, I just chose another number that I liked."

Edwards, who has enjoyed a sparking start to camp, spoke earlier in the week about the work he put in during the offseason with former Panthers wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad. Edwards also worked practiced fielding punts with Muhammad's brother-in-law, Gari Scott, who played for the Philadelphia Eagles from 2000-01.

"He played in the NFL for a while in the punt return game, so he helped me out with that," Edwards said. "Every day on the JUGS I tried to field 40, 50 punts. I feel like I can catch them with my eyes closed now."


FRIDAY SCHEDULE: The Panthers will again take to the practice field at 6 p.m.

As is the case after nearly every practice, children between the ages of 6 and 13 are invited to participate in the Panther Pals program by signing up at the welcome tent near the entrance to the practice fields. Five names are drawn about 30 minutes before the end of practice, and winners get to spend a few minutes with a player after practice.

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