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SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Christian McCaffrey’s had more praise heaped on him during the first week of training camp than perhaps any Carolina Panthers rookie since Cam Newton in 2011. From Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to Newton himself, who calls the former Stanford running back “C-Mac,” this has felt like a coronation.
The biggest compliment came on Sunday from Pro Bowl running back Jonathan Stewart, who said “there’s not going to be anybody in this league that can cover him one-on-one.’’
So, we get it. McCaffrey is going to be special if he lives up to expectations.
A nine-year veteran, Jonathan Stewart has eclipsed 800 yards rushing in each of the past three seasons with Carolina. Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports
Just don’t forget Stewart.
He’s special in his own right.
The 13th pick of the 2008 draft doesn’t always get credit for what he’s done. Ankle injuries that limited him in 2012 and 2013, as well as sharing the backfield with DeAngelo Williams from 2008 to 2014 and playing on losing teams much of that time, kept him from being recognized as one of the league’s top backs.
But Stewart is better than average. He fell 11 yards shy of rushing for 1,000 in 2015 despite missing three games. He had 824 yards and nine touchdowns last season in 13 games behind an injury-plagued offensive line. And he needs only 209 yards to surpass Williams (6,846) as the team’s all-time leading rusher.
The Panthers thought enough of the former Oregon star that this offseason they signed him to a one-year extension through 2018. They did this even though he turned 30, an age the production of most backs begins to decline.
“He’s a big part of what we want to do, and he’s going to be a really big part of the tandem we want to have with those backs,’’ coach Ron Rivera said.
Yes, Stewart will share the backfield with McCaffrey. He will be the power back who gets most of the carries on first and second down. McCaffrey will be the change-of-pace back used in passing situations and on third down. There will be times when both are on the field, either in the backfield or with McCaffrey in the slot or at wide receiver.
But there is no jealousy on Stewart’s part because McCaffrey is getting so much attention in camp. In many ways, this is no different than when he and Williams were known as “Double Trouble.’’
In 2009, they became the first pair of backs on the same team to rush for more than 1,100 yards in the same season. Stewart had a career-best 1,133.
“You want to call me the big bruiser or whatever,’’ Stewart said. “I don’t know what you’re going to call [McCaffrey]. It’s up to you. But he’s a special player and we’ve got to use him the right way.’’
And the Panthers have to use Stewart.
He proved last year in a late-season prime-time win against the Washington Redskins that he still has plenty left, rushing for 132 yards on 25 carries. He had 20-plus carries in three of the final four games. He still can be a workhorse.
But the Panthers want to create the type of mismatches the Atlanta Falcons did last season with their two-back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The two combined for 1,599 yards and 19 touchdowns rushing, and 883 yards and five touchdowns receiving.
Stewart and McCaffrey could be more dangerous because of the many ways to keep McCaffrey on the field with Stewart.
Just don’t forget Stewart. He’s