Wharton Back Soon For 2-0 Panthers

The Carolina Panthers are off to a great start, sitting atop the NFC South at 2-0 following Sunday's 20-17 victory over the Chicago Bears. Former Gamecock Travelle Wharton missed the game due to a sprained knee suffered in the season opener against San Diego, but expects to be back in uniform by the end of the month.

That is especially good news for the former All-SEC tackle, considering Wharton missed the final 15 games of the 2006 season after suffering a torn left ACL and MCL against Atlanta in Week One.

"I sprained my knee before the half of the San Diego game," explained Wharton in an upbeat Panther locker room following Sunday's 20-17 win over the Bears. "Now it's just taking awhile, but within the next week or two I'll be right back out there with my guys."

Thankfully, Wharton's knee sustained no structural damage against the Chargers. That didn't prevent a sleepless night after returning home from San Diego late last Sunday, as the Fountain Inn native had to wait out the results of an MRI to determine the severity of the injury.

"No, I didn't sleep a bit (Sunday night) when we got back," Wharton said. "I was just thinking ‘Not this again on the first game of the year'. You know, you work so hard to get to this part of the year and something like this happens to set you back. When it happened, I went to the side and shook a little bit. The doctor said it was the MCL the way my knee reacted, but until the MRI you're not really certain if it's the MCL, ACL, or maybe even both. You don't know exactly how bad it is right away. So, I got the MRI results back Monday and it was just the MCL. It was a relief knowing that I didn't need surgery. I'll just take a week or two off."

Wharton slid inside to left guard from tackle as the Panthers retooled their offensive line during the off-season. And despite intimating that he may have preferred to remain at tackle, Wharton's "team before me" mentality wins out over personal whims.

"It's been okay," he said of the move to guard. "I'm familiar with it. In certain situations it gets easier, in some situations it gets tougher. But you just have to play football. That's all I've ever wanted to do, just be a part of this team, do my job, and just play football and have fun."

The transition from tackle to guard has been a smooth one. After all, Wharton started 11 games at the position as a rookie in 2004. Nonetheless, there are certain nuances which demand a sort of reacquainting process.

"The communication and technique, those are the biggest adjustments," the Hillcrest of Simpsonville product explained. "If we're going in a certain direction, you must know what tools to use, what technique to use that will best help the center out or help the tackle out. So the technique and the communication is a big part (of playing guard) compared to being on an island (at tackle) because you're always working with somebody inside.

"Other than that, the main emphasis is on simply going out there and playing with an attitude. Play hard for each other. Once you do that, no matter what play is called, you lay it on the line for each other. If it's a run play, I've got to make my block, because I know the guy beside me is going to make his. Give our backs enough room and they're going to do a great job."

The Panthers have had to come from behind in both of their wins and have already been dubbed the "Cardiac Cats". But after failing to reach the playoffs the past two seasons, nary a player is fretting over having to fashion fourth quarter comebacks. As the cliché goes - "a win is a win is a win".

"We're pulling out the W's," Wharton said with a grin. "That's the main thing for us. Starting a little faster would help but as long as we keep winning and maintain our belief; that's the main thing, the belief. All the way through the game, we have to stay right there so when we need to make a play or two, everybody will do their job and we'll win the game.

"We've got a special camaraderie. All off-season you could just sense that. The guys have all been getting along, going out there competing against each other. I said all along it's been very competitive this off-season. Just going against these guys during training camp gets you ready. Then when game time comes, you look out there and know what they (defense) can do, and the same for us (offense). It's a real good team and a real good group of guys to be playing with and that makes this job that much more fun."

As for the NFC South, which also includes the Saints, Bucs and Falcons and has been overshadowed by the brutal NFC East since the start of the preseason, Wharton cautions any naysayers "not to sleep on our division."

"It's always tough, the NFC South. When you see those guys twice a year, as a player you know it's one of the toughest. We kind of bang each other up. Every year it's going to be a dog fight. When we get into the divisional games we know it's going to be very tough. It's a little rivalry between all the teams because we all are trying to be the best."

Wharton keeps a close eye on the Gamecocks, and like many others, is surprised by the USC offense's lack of explosiveness.

"I never would have thought it," Wharton said while shaking his head. "Over the past couple of years you always knew we (USC) were going to come out with good defenses. We've had some good athletes on that side of the ball. But offensively, I still think those guys will get it together. I think it will take a little while for that group of guys. As long as the defense does their thing, they'll be all right. The offense will come around."

Wharton watched the Gamecocks agonizing 14-7 loss to then-#2 Georgia on Saturday, a loss made all the tougher for the Carolina alum by a couple of friendly side bets with current Panthers teammates Thomas Davis and Charles Johnson, both ex-Dawgs.

"Yeah, I'll probably have a Georgia hat and t-shirt waiting on me in my locker tomorrow," Wharton lamented. "But it's okay. We'll get those guys next year."

"But that's OK," Wharton concluded with a grin on his face as wide as the Panther Stadium goalposts. "We're 2 and 0, I'll be back out there soon, and the Gamecocks, well, they're only gonna get better."

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