SPARTANBURG — There are dozens of little things about being in training camp that Panthers head coach Matt Rhule is excited about.
But the being at training camp remains at the top of his list.
Rhule had a visible glee when he talked about packing his stuff to go away to a training camp for the first time since 2012 (when he was with the Giants), and said the fact his players seem to have the same reaction.
"I think the fact that our players wanted to do this," Rhule said when asked about the positives of this environment. "Our players could have very easily said we don't want to do this. The fact that our players wanted to get away from home, that they wanted to come together and unite as a team, and go through something hard, be in this heat, be in a unique environment, that they wanted to stress themselves, I think that speaks more than anything else.
"Coming here and the commitment of the players to come here is a real step forward."
It's not that he put it on a ballot, but the Panthers voted with their feet during voluntary work, with all but one player showing up for at least a portion of OTAs, and everyone on hand for minicamp. And coming off his rookie season, when he had to conduct his offseason program virtually and didn't meet players in person until "camp" at Bank of America Stadium, this opportunity to embed himself in football makes him smile.
He's not the only one.
Running back Christian McCaffrey was also eager to return to Wofford College, and not just because he missed 13 games last year because of injuries. McCaffrey just likes being here, and has told all the younger backs around him to embrace the next month of their lives.
"The biggest thing is just to enjoy this," McCaffrey said. "I think when you look at training camp as a burden, like it's not going to be fun, ... this is the stuff you'll miss about football, when you look back on college, this will be the stuff you miss.
"There's not another time in your life when you get to get together with your friends and play football and go to meetings and go through these dog days. And so really to enjoy the moment and to not get too hyped for it either. Just be in the present and that's really it."
READY FOR ACTION
Reports have put the Panthers' roster over 90 percent vaccinated against COVID-19, one of the top numbers in the league. Rhule wouldn't quantify it, but said he was happy with where they were, and the numbers of players arriving unmasked (players who haven't been vaccinated are supposed to be wearing masks) suggests widespread compliance.
Neither McCaffrey nor quarterback Sam Darnold would confirm whether they had or had not taken the shot, but they met with reporters while unmasked.
"Guys made decisions," Rhule said. "I think we provided guys with information. There is no doubt that being vaccinated helps our team. The more guys are vaccinated, the more guys we can have in meetings, . . . But at the end of the day it's still everyone's personal decision.
"We're pretty high up there, so I'm really proud of our guys for getting vaccinated. And the guys that didn't get it, you know what, some of those guys have articulated their reasons to me, and I'm good with it."
Teams gain more freedoms when they get certain percentages of the roster vaccinated, so Rhule has leaned into the competitive advantage aspect, and his players have largely gone along.
Right tackle Taylor Moton took a few snaps on the left during offseason workouts, fueling speculation that he might move to left tackle full-time. That's not the plan at the moment, though he said he'd continue to get himself ready if he's needed.
"I went back to my first couple of years when I didn't know where I was playing," Moton said. "I just told myself I want to be as prepared as I possibly can be, on either side of the line.
"Shoot, if (center) Matt (Paradis) goes down, I can snap the ball if I need to."
Rhule talked about the "fluid situation" along the offensive line, and said he hoped to see competition solidify their best five players. He didn't have a time frame for that, saying: "When you know, you know."
Mostly, he wants to take the next few weeks to survey his options before declaring anything, or deciding whether he needs to move Moton.
Getting a sense of the offensive line competition will be easier since they're all available.
Rhule said that tackles Cameron Erving and Trent Scott would be available for the start of camp, after they missed time during OTAs because of injuries. Cornerback Troy Pride Jr. will also be ready, after he was sidelined throughout the spring.
— Fitterer famously declared the Panthers to be "in on every deal," but at the moment, they're pressing pause on that. The GM was asked about speculation about potentially available quarterbacks, but said that wasn't a priority at the moment.
"We're focused on the guys that are here right now," Fitterer said. "We're going to get Sam and all of our guys ready to play. We're not focused on guys that are on other teams. We're focused on the guys here."
— Players will go through a conditioning test Tuesday, the last step before practice begins Wednesday morning. But Rhule wasn't sweating it.
"If you've worked out in the last month, you should pass," Rhule said.
View photos from Wofford College as the Panthers move in to the dorms before the start of 2021 training camp.