Early in training camp last year,
Geoff Schwartz prepared to be the Panthers’ starting right guard.
Later in training camp, Garry Williams worked feverishly on a position change that would allow him to take over at right guard.
And before training camp kicked off, rookie Zack Williams wondered whether he’d figure into the mix at right guard.
Once the regular season started, however, Schwartz and the two Williamses no longer shared such a goal. What they did share, unfortunately, was a vacant television booth adjacent to the Bank of America Stadium press box on game days, where they watched right guard Geoff Hangartner and the rest of their teammates do battle while they all recovered from season-ending injuries suffered before the season even started.
The injuries were the first major ones any of the linemen had ever suffered.
“We just watched the game, got some food. It was just kind of weird,” Schwartz said. “We didn’t really know the game plan either, so we just kind of watched like fans, cheered like fans.
“It was just a weird feeling, seeing all your buddies out there. You see how hard they’re working, and you’re up in the box. It was odd.”
The trio of linemen might have eaten a hot dog along with injured tight end Gary Barnidge or shared some popcorn with injured linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, but every other day of the week, their hunger to get back on the field drove them.
All of them are making steady, significant progress and plan to be back next season.
“It crushed me because I really wanted to play,” Garry Williams said, echoing the sentiments of his fellow linemen. “Now I’m just looking forward to next season. I’m going to come back and give it all I’ve got.”
After being on the field for every offensive snap in 2010, Schwartz didn’t make it to the first snap of the 2011 season.
“I had a hip impingement (bone spur that tears the cartilage) that kind of built up over time, and on the day of Fan Fest, it just went out,” Schwartz said. “I got an injection or two to try to ease the pain, but it didn’t work, so I had to get it fixed.
“It was difficult for it to come to that, but it had to be done. The damage was pretty extensive.”
The good news is that Schwartz, a seventh-round draft choice out of Oregon in 2008, believes he could be better than ever next season as a result of his ordeal.
“It’s basically like getting a new hip,” he said. “They shave the bone down to make it look like it did when I was a teenager, and I got the labrum fixed so I have a lot more range of motion.
“I’ll be able to move a little freer now, be able to get a little lower in my stance and explode a little better.”
Schwartz played right tackle at Oregon and saw his first notable NFL action at right tackle in 2009. After starting the first five games there in 2010, he switched to right guard.
He said he’d rather return to right guard in 2012 but certainly has versatility that could be key to finding his niche among a deep group of offensive linemen.
“I want to play guard – that’s the position I like best – but I can play guard or tackle,” Schwartz said. “We’ve got a lot of guys coming back, so it’s going to be a battle. We have a good unit, and we’ll only get better, especially working with Cam (Newton) for a full offseason.”
Once it became clear that Schwartz wasn’t going to play in 2011, the Panthers turned to Garry Williams to see if he could make the switch from tackle like Schwartz once had.
Williams started at right guard in the preseason finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers and appeared to be well on his way to earning the starting role, but then injury befell him as well.
“It was unfortunate,” Williams said. “Somebody – a teammate – just fell on my ankle. I remember hearing it pop and thinking, ‘It’s over.’ Then I looked down and saw it was turned the other way.”
Williams went on injured reserve with a broken left ankle, but he was released from rehab during exit physicals at the end of the season and is now working to get stronger. Williams said doctors told him his left ankle might come out of the ordeal even stronger than his right ankle.
“I’m still in the training room working out, working on strength,” he said. “I can do everything and am mobile as far as exercises, but I still need to get it strengthened up. It’s getting better.”
Williams, signed as an undrafted rookie free agent from Kentucky in 2009, said he enjoyed watching the offense’s growth last season, but he’s even more excited about being an active part of it.
“It was exciting to see the numbers we put up and the fans erupting,” he said. “We’ll have a lot of competition again on the offensive line, and that’s going to make the team better with everybody fighting for a spot. I can’t wait to see what happens.”
A sixth-round draft pick out of Washington State in 2011, Williams was less than a week into his first NFL training camp when his rookie season came to an end before it even started.
“I was just going up to the linebacker. I was off-balance, and the linebacker hit me in my knee and it buckled,” Williams said. “I didn’t know I had torn my ACL – I had never torn my ACL before – but I knew I had done something. I had torn my ACL and MCL.”
Williams is continuing to rehab and feels like he could practice now, though he knows medical personnel wouldn’t allow it. He has tried to make the best of a difficult situation throughout.
“It was probably good for me to be able to see how things work, during practice and games,” he said. “It’s not something I could really control – people get hurt all the time – so I’ve just had to deal with it and get better from it. I think I’ve handled it pretty good. I’m doing everything I can to get back out there.”
When he is back in the mix, Williams could factor in at guard, where he played as a college junior, but he’s actually been a center most of his career.
“It’s a good asset to be able to play multiple positions,” he said.