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Injured WR Smith hopeful to be ready for Panthers' season opener

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Steve Smith slowly walked across the Wofford College campus Tuesday with his right arm in a sling, facing the prospect that he'll miss several weeks of the preseason.

The Carolina Panthers' star wide receiver was subdued yet also relieved that his shoulder injury wasn't more serious.

"I thought it was broke," Smith said, "because it started hurting immediately."

Smith's collision with cornerback Chris Gamble and the ensuing hard fall Monday night in a passing drill during a non-padded practice produced murmurs in the Panthers' unlucky training camp. One week after starting defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu was lost for the season with a torn Achilles' tendon, Carolina coaches and players watched their top playmaker kick his helmet in frustration before being carted to the locker room.

X-rays on Smith's arm were negative, and while the four-time Pro Bowler declined to say if he had separated his shoulder, he appeared confident that he'll be ready for the regular-season opener Sept. 13 against the Philadelphia Eagles.

"I would hope so," Smith said. "Once again, I left that (medical) degree at home. so I don't know the timetable at which I'll be full go."

While the Panthers always are secretive with injuries -- Smith wouldn't even say if he would have an MRI -- there was a sense that they avoided a major pitfall after seeing Smith's right shoulder slam to the turf.

"We were doing one-on-ones," Smith said. "Two competitors going after the ball, accidents happen. I know, I spoke to (Gamble) and I know it wasn't a malicious act or trying to do it personally.

"But I was still upset, because going through camp, whether you're nine years or one year, no one wants to get hurt. That same time, they want to get through camp peacefully and injury free so you can go into the season without little things nagging."

Smith has a history of shoulder trouble, dating to a 2007 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Last year, he fell hard on his right shoulder during a preseason victory over the Washington Redskins, but it didn't force him to miss any games. This time, Smith could miss the entire preseason.

"We had breakfast this morning, and he was a lot more sore this morning, but that's to be expected," quarterback Jake Delhomme said of Smith. "He'll be fine. I know he'll get frustrated and aggravated, but I think we all would. You don't come to camp to sit and watch."

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Barely a week into camp at Wofford, the Panthers have suffered injuries to the two areas in which they had the least depth. While Nick Hayden, with two games of NFL experience, has replaced the run-stuffing Kemoeatu, the Panthers have similar inexperience behind Smith.

Fellow starting receiver Muhsin Muhammad was switched to Smith's "X" position in Carolina's offense at practice Tuesday. Dwayne Jarrett, who has caught 16 passes without a touchdown in two disappointing NFL seasons, was elevated to the first unit in Muhammad's old spot.

Behind them are rookies, castoffs and players trying to return from injuries, ranging from Ryne Robinson and Jason Carter to Kenneth Moore and Larry Beavers. They'll have plenty of reps beginning in Monday's preseason opener at the New York Giants.

"It's time for some of these guys to shine," Delhomme said. "This is their deal. This is it. If they don't embrace it, then they're not the type of players we think they are. But I think they will embrace it."

The Panthers hope they won't depend on the group of no-names for long.

Smith's explosive speed and big-play ability were credited in helping open up Carolina's running game last season. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined to rush for 2,351 yards and 28 touchdowns, the best 1-2 punch in the NFL.

Despite being suspended for the first two games last season for breaking teammate Ken Lucas' nose in a training-camp fight, Smith still finished with 78 catches for 1,421 yards and six touchdowns and made his fourth Pro Bowl.

Known for his acrobatic catches and breakaway speed, Smith vowed that his aggressive style won't change when he returns.

"I'm not concerned about being limited or any of that stuff," Smith said. "I think when I get back out there, the mobility of it, it will not impede me from catching the ball."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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