Wharton plays big role in return to Panthers

The Carolina Panthers entered Sunday's South Division opener with Atlanta unsure of guard Travelle Wharton's ability to go full speed. Out since the second quarter of the season opener against San Diego, the former Gamecock from Fountain Inn was penciled in as the starter at left guard against the Falcons. But as it turned out, Wharton didn't play a whole lot... at least not at left guard.

A concussion suffered by Jordan Gross in the first quarter ended the day for the team's starting left tackle. With little quality depth behind Gross at that position, offensive line coach Dave Magazu turned to Wharton to slide over from guard to the tackle position he manned last season.

The results? The line hardly skipped a beat, bouncing back nicely from a dreadful outing against the Vikings a week ago, and paved the way for the tailback duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to combine for over 100 yards rushing and a touchdown in the Panthers' 24-9 win. And perhaps more importantly, the retooled offensive front kept NFL sacks leader (and former Gamecock) John Abraham and his Falcons teammates from getting to quarterback Jake Delhomme.

Delhomme parlayed the great protection up front into a big day, hitting Moose Muhammad for 147 yards and a touchdown on eight receptions and hooking up with Steve Smith six times for 96 yards and a score. And not once did the Panthers offensive line allow their quarterback to be sacked.

Just another day's work for the 6-4, 312 pounder, who was itching to contribute after sitting out the last two games with a sprained knee. But while Wharton may have anticipated making an impact on his return to the lineup, finding himself back at tackle was not in the script.

"I wasn't expecting that at all," Wharton said. "Just getting back out there, double knee braces and all, I just wanted to get back out there with the guys. Unfortunately, under the circumstances, I had to go out there and play tackle. I was just going out there and doing what I can for the team. I just want to win."

"I felt kind of awkward at first," he conceded. "I was trying to get the timing right of trying to play out there in space, just trying to stay focused. The guys did a great job with the snap count. We were working together as a unit and that was very important for me to be successful out there."

Last week's loss at Minnesota led to a sense of urgency to bounce back strong and not let the "wrong" kind of streak begin.

"It was very important," Wharton insisted. "You don't want to start a losing streak no matter what. You want to get back on track, come back next week and win, and then get prepared for the next game. It's one week at a time because it's a long season. But every game is important so the next one (Kansas City) is very important also."

Wharton's versatility to play guard or tackle with equal aplomb is perhaps his most valuable asset.

"Well it is," Panthers GM Marty Hurney analyzed following the win. "And again, even without Jordan's injury, Travelle is extremely important to us. He's been playing great at guard for us. He gives us a physical presence in there and he's also athletic."

"He and Jordan have done a great job protecting Jake's backside," Hurney continued. "Then today, Jordan gets hurt and Travelle did a very good job, as far as what I saw, moving over and taking up the tackle spot."

"Travelle is just a great fit here. He's smart, he's tough and he's very consistent."

During his post game press conference, Carolina head coach John Fox echoed Hurney's sentiments.

"Travelle's a good football player," Fox told the assembled media. "That's why he starts for us. We took a guy in the first round at tackle (Jeff Otah), so we were able to move Travelle inside. He's a guy that we thought very highly of in the free agency process, so that's why we kept him.

"That was a plan, and flexibility is real important, as we found out through experience. When you lose guys for the season early in the year, you need some guys that can swing and play different positions and I thought that was beneficial today."

When Fox says the Panthers valued Wharton highly in the free agency process, he means it. Wharton signed a 6-year, $36 million deal over the off-season, not the kind of money an organization typically offers a young offensive lineman with no Pro Bowls on his resume.

Unless, of course, there is something unique, something really special about a player. Special enough to justify such a generous monetary commitment. And that is where the former Gamecock team captain's versatility makes a difference.

"You don't," Hurney affirmed when asked how often a contract like Wharton's is offered, based more on potential than accomplishments, to a young offensive lineman. "But he's one of our core guys. We knew that. He plays left tackle. He plays left guard. He's a physical player and a very good athlete. He's somebody we hope finishes his career here with the Panthers."

"Travelle's a great person," Hurney concluded. "He's our kind of guy. He's a good player and he's just a great fit here."

As for Wharton's knee, it emerged relatively unscathed despite Wharton having to defend former USC teammate and current NFL sack leader Abraham.

"It feels good. It feels good," Wharton said of his knee in an upbeat Panthers locker room. "Only time will tell, though. We'll go out this week and see how well it does, (but) I'm pretty sure I'll be alright."

"You never know what's going to be your last play," he said, referring to the tenuous nature of life in the trenches in the NFL. "That's something I've had to learn. You just take it one play at a time."

As for Sunday's injuries to right tackle Otah and to Gross, Wharton's "left-hand man" on the Panthers' O-line, it is apparent in his answer that the NFL season is a marathon, not a sprint, and injuries must be treated accordingly.

"Hopefully, they'll be back real soon, but they need to heal up," Wharton explained. "That's more important than anything, for them to heal up. In this league, you DON'T want guys to come back and play, at least not until they are 100% recovered. If you try to come back too soon, you're probably gonna get hurt again and that doesn't help anybody. Yeah, they need to heal up. That's the important thing."

On his match-up with Abraham, Wharton said it was all business.

"During the TV timeout, we shook hands and then it was like ‘let's play ball!'. He's like my big brother and you're going to play extra hard when you go against a family member, no matter what. It was just goin' hard and competing."

All things considered, a good day for Wharton and his Panther teammates.

"Definitely," he grinned. "It's a divisional win. We'll take it. It's a divisional win against a real good defensive team. It was good for us to come out here and play good football."

And contribute in a big way. No matter what the position.

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