Tolbert missing piece in Panthers’ puzzle

SPARTANBURG, SC — Mike Tolbert doesn’t like the suffocating heat of the American South, but he’s happy to be “home” nonetheless.

A native of Douglas, GA, Tolbert spent the last four years in San Diego where every day is seemingly like the one before and the one to come. He calls the weather there “almost perfect.”

But when Tolbert opted to sign with the Carolina Panthers in the offseason, he realized he’d have to embrace the heat of the South, and that was alright for someone who just may be the team’s busiest player when it comes to team meetings.

A fullback by nature, the 5-foot-9, 245-pounder will play almost every other skill position on offense plus he will see action on special teams. Second-year Panthers coach Ron Rivera could barely contain his excitement about having the former San Diego Charger on board.

“He’s a very versatile football player, and that’s probably the biggest thing,” Rivera said. “He not just plays fullback, but he can play tight end, he can play running back, we can out him out with the wide receivers. He gives us more versatility and dimensions of what we want to do offensively.”

In college at FCS member Coastal Carolina, located in Myrtle Beach, SC, which is about four hours from Charlotte where the Panthers play, Tolbert was pretty much a tailback, as he caught just 26 passes. The Chargers recognized he could do more, and in four seasons there, Tolbert ran the ball 341 times for 1,410 yards while catching 109 passes for 1,012 yards. He scored 26 touchdowns, 20 on the ground.

Rivera was a defensive coach in San Diego for three of those seasons, so he knew the kind of nightmare having a multidimensional player as reliable as Tolbert on the roster causes opposing defenses, so he jumped at the chance at bringing him aboard.

In fact, Tolbert accepted $1 million less over four years to sign with the Panthers because of how he views the direction of the franchise and how he fits into its plans. He was intrigued by the prospect of playing with Cam Newton, last year’s Rookie of the Year, but he also felt like other pieces were in place for the Panthers to start winning right away.

Being added to the mix was good business for Carolina, Tolbert says.

“I honestly think I can be the missing piece that can help the team excel this year,” he said. “(Offensive coordinator Rob) Chud (Chudzinski) expressed to me his willingness to give me the ball at times and let me do what I do. And then, obviously my versatility – playing special teams, running back, fullback, whatever they need. I’m excited about being out here and just going at it.”

Tolbert isn’t going to get 20-plus carries a game this fall unless disaster hits and DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart suffer injuries. They are both squarely ahead of Tolbert on the depth chart, but the newcomer is happy with his role, and said Williams and Stewart have made the transition comfortable.

“I wasn’t sure how I’d be received in the running back room,” Tolbert said. “But they’ve welcomed me with open arms. Both of them gave me a phone call the day I signed here, just wishing me the best of luck. We tell each other all the time we’re going to have the best running in the league, the best running game in the league. Then you’ve got Cam.”

The Panthers were already third in the NFL in rushing a season ago, averaging 150.5 yards per game, including 5.4 yard per attempt. The league’s top rushing team, Denver, averaged just 14 more yards per game and just 4.8 yards per carry.

It’s no wonder expectations continue to soar in the Carolinas. Newton’s second season, a healthy defense that added some needed parts, and a flexible ground game that just might be the NFL’s best are reasons why center Ryan Kalil recently took out an ad in the Charlotte Observer predicting a spot in the Super Bowl.

Expectations were always high in San Diego, so Tolbert is no stranger to the demands.

“You just have to go to work every day with a hard hat on knowing that the next day can be the next step up climbing the mountain,” he said. “Some teams live up to that potential and some don’t. You just have to know if you work as hard as you can you will always give your best effort.”

The Chargers never quite found the right groove and failed to meet expectations. But Tolbert is hoping that won’t be the case at Carolina.