FB Tolbert’s versatility paying off for Panthers

Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert is used to defenders

underestimating him when he has the ball in his hands.

He’s hoping they continue to overlook him.

The squatty 5-foot-9, 245-pound Tolbert doesn’t look like he’d

be tough to tackle or is particularly fast.

Tolbert’s low center of gravity and surprising speed has made

him a valuable and versatile commodity for the Panthers (9-3), who

beat Tampa Bay 27-6 on Sunday for their eighth straight

victory.

”They see a guy that is short and fat and they think, `Oh yeah,

we got him no problem.”’ Tolbert said with a laugh. ”Then they

are like `Whoa, where did he get those feet from? I didn’t know he

was that fast.”’

Tolbert’s physique has been the source of some good-natured

ribbing from teammates, who like to pick on him just as much as he

likes teasing them.

”In the locker room he has a lot of nicknames,” quarterback

Cam Newton said.

Newton said he calls Tolbert ”tub of goo” and said backup

quarterback Derek Anderson pegged him as ”Patty Mayonnaise. Tub of

Mayonnaise.”

The QB said others call him ”Sugar Bear.”

”If y’all don’t get my gist, he’s a big mass guy,” Newton

said. ”He may not look good running, but he gets the job done. …

He’s a player you would hope that he’s on your team. He brings a

lot of energy to the huddle, brings a lot of energy to this

team.”

And football smarts, too.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who played nine seasons in the NFL

and has coached 17, said Tolbert is ”about as smart of a football

player as I’ve been around.”

That’s one of the reasons why Rivera pushed former general

manager Marty Hurney to sign Tolbert as a free agent in 2012.

Rivera had worked with Tolbert in San Diego.

”He understands the offensive concepts, what to look for in

terms of blocking and protections,” Rivera said. ”He understands

running the ball and using blocks and setting up blocks. He

understands how to run a route, how to beat man coverage and beat

zone coverage. … He has a natural feel for the game and is able

to pick things up really well.”

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula said Tolbert’s football IQ and

versatility mesh perfect with Carolina’s offense.

He said Tolbert’s ability to play halfback, fullback and tight

end – as well as special teams – make him tough to keep off the

field.

”He has built in leverage, which I think is important in this

sport, and really good balance, too,” Shula said. ”… He plays

with an attitude of toughness and whatever it takes. We feel lucky

to have him.”

Tolbert was used primarily in short-yardage and goal-line

situations last year in Carolina and most of his four seasons in

San Diego. His 30 touchdowns rushing since 2010 are tied for

sixth-most in the NFL.

But on Sunday with DeAngelo Williams out with an injury and

Jonathan Stewart struggling to pick up yards, the Panthers turned

to Tolbert more often between the 20s and in longer

down-and-distance situations.

Tolbert didn’t disappoint, racking up 89 yards from

scrimmage.

Rivera, a former linebacker, smiled when asked how he’d tackle

Tolbert.

”I don’t know,” Rivera said. ”I know that he’d hit me in the

chest, that’s for sure.”

Tolbert, 28, is far from fancy.

After Sunday’s win, he pulled on a dark hooded sweatshirt with

two pit bulls plastered on the front. He said he owns two pit

bulls. In the locker room he’s the resident comedian and teammates

say you can often hear his voice from across the room.

But on the field, he’s all about producing.

Tolbert has quietly run for 301 yards and four touchdowns and

caught 19 passes for 145 yards and two TDs.

That may surprise some. But it certainly doesn’t surprise

Tolbert, who has turned a college career at tiny Coastal Carolina

into a successful six-year NFL career.

”Everybody underestimates me – for a minute,” Tolbert

said.

NOTES: Rivera said he expects Williams, defensive Charles

Johnson, linebacker Chase Blackburn and tight end Ben Hartsock to

return to practice Wednesday.

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org