NFL Draft a holiday for fans of Panthers, local colleges

Some say Christmas is the “most wonderful time of the year” but many football fans agree that this week’s NFL Draft is pretty close.

Many sports fans think that the NFL draft and signing day for college football are national holidays. Football has become such a major part of our lives, we can not help but tune in.

We want to find out if our team or teams are going to pick up a game-changing player. We want to see where those top-named college players we have followed since they were in high school are going to be playing on Sundays.

The first round past for the Panthers, and we now know who will join the host of local players to play at Bank of America Stadium – Star Lotulelei, defensive tackle from Utah.

Lotulelei is a 6-2, 311 pound defensive powerhouse and former Morris Trophy winner. He should make an immediate impact for Carolina, alongside 2012 Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly. He had 42 tackles, 11 for a loss and five sacks last season.

This will make many sports fans happy that they have had a much greater, vested interest over the past several years. Whether they have been Carolina Panthers fans, South Carolina, Clemson or Coastal Carolina.

With the No. pick overall in 2011, the Panthers drafted Auburn standout and Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. Newton went on to win the Rookie of the Year that year, and brought a high level of excitement back to Charlotte.

Take a look back at 2009 when South Carolina kickoff specialist and defensive standout Captain Munnerlyn was taken by Carolina in Round 7. Since joining the Panthers, Munnerlyn has had 208 total tackles, five interceptions for 144 yards and three touchdowns, and 27 pass deflections, along with 75 punt returns for 677 yards.

Munnerlyn is one of three current players for the Carolina Panthers with local ties. He played collegiately at the University of South Carolina.

Joining Munnerlyn in the black and teal defensive backfield last year was Coastal Carolina All-American comeback Josh Norman. The Greenwood native was drafted in the fifth round with the No. overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft.

Norman finished his rookie campaign with 73 tackles, seven passes defended and one interception. He was also in on special teams in 2012. Norman said that it was a “relief” when he got that call from the Panthers. He said that one of the best feelings is after a win, the city just erupts, according to Norman.

“(One of the toughest parts of the season) was going though the long season, and never having an end,” said Norman.

He also gave advice to any new draftee coming into the league, as with off-season workouts and training, the season seems to go on for 365 days.

“Prepare like never before and always keep your eyes on your goal and don’t sway from it,” added Norman.

The Carolina Panthers added another piece to its offensive puzzle with fullback Mike Tolbert, who came to the league as an undrafted in 2008 with the San Diego Chargers.

He was a standout while playing collegiately at Coastal Carolina. Tolbert added even more depth to the Panthers offense, alongside Newton, DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Greg Olsen, Steve Smith, and the latest pick up in 2013 – Dominique Hixon.

Tolbert has contributed 1,568 and 24 rushing touchdowns. he has contributed 135 receptions for 1,258 yards and six touchdowns for his career.

Another local product from Rowland, NC, Vonta Leach, who plays fullback for the Baltimore Ravens. Leach went undrafted in 2004, and by now has left many teams kicking themselves.

In the last 3 years, Leach as been a three-time All-pro selection, a 3 time Pro Bowl selection, and this past season, he helped lead the Baltimore Ravens to the Super Bowl championship.

Leach, who has been the blocking catalyst for Arian Foster, and the last two seasons for Ray Rice, has 70 rushes and three rushing touchdowns. He has added 112 receptions for 749 yards and four touchdowns.

As far as the success from the local college players this season, DeAndre Hopkins, wide receiver from Clemson,  has caught the attention of many teams, and is likely to go in the first round tonight. Many mock drafts have him going to the

South Carolina superstar running back Marcus Lattimore, who is coming off a injury, likely will not be selected until the later rounds. He has been on the radar for playoff teams – the San Francisco 49ers and the New England Patriots. If he can come back from the injury, similar to what Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings did this season.

Since the NFL draft began in 1936, Clemson University has had 207 players taken in the NFL draft. Since 2009, the Tigers have had 19 players drafted into the NFL. That includes both CJ Spiller and Jacoby Ford, both from 2010.

South Carolina has had 110 players drafted. Since 2009, the Gamecocks have had 17 players drafted.

The Carolina Panthers needs this year include a premium defensive tackle, a wide receiver, a safety or cornerback, another offensive lineman, and possibly a second quality linebacker.

They have five picks in 2013. Carolina could take Blidi Wreh-Wilson maybe in the second round CB from Connecticut.

People have mentioned Hopkins from Clemson if he will be there, he could make a big impact on offense. They have a second, fourth, fifth and sixth round pick remaining.

Either way, it should be an interesting year for the Carolina Panthers, who have been rated in the preseason as having the most difficult schedule this fall at a .583 percentage.

They play the Seattle Seahawks, the San Francisco 49ers, the New York Giants, the New England Patriots, and the Minnesota Vikings just to name a few. They also see the Atlanta Falcons twice, the New Orleans Saints and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with newly acquired Darrelle Revis.

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