Panthers waive player whose shoulder-to-neck hit sent receiver to the hospital

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The Carolina Panthers first practice in pads turned from a normal day on the field to a scary scene quickly.

Panthers safety J.T. Ibe was waived Tuesday morning after delivering a shoulder-to-neck blow to wide receiver Keith Kirkwood that required him to be taken to the hospital.

Kirkwood has movement in his arms and legs, and coach Matt Rhule said after practice that Kirkwood has no pain in his neck. He was released from the hospital Tuesday afternoon and returned to Wofford’s campus with the team. He has been diagnosed with a concussion.

“We were all praying for him,” Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold said. “We’ve got to do a lot better job of taking care of each other out there.”

The injury occurred during the second half of the team’s practice. In the midst of 11-on-11 drills, Kirkwood left his feet trying to catch a pass from quarterback P.J. Walker. Ibe came in to defend the pass, but hit a defenseless Kirkwood in the neck with his shoulder. Safety Kenny Robinson was also defending the receiver on the play.

Kirkwood slumped to the ground motionless and was immediately attended to by trainers. The practice at Wofford College went silent as teammates and coaches surrounded him on one knee. About 10 minutes later, Kirkwood was placed on a backboard, carted off the field and taken to an ambulance. Practice resumed shortly after. (A video of the hit can be viewed here.)

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Immediately after the hit, Ibe, an undrafted player out of South Carolina whom the Panthers signed following his workout at the Gamecocks’ Pro Day In April, was told by Rhule to leave the practice at Wofford College and he slowly walked off the field alone. Rhule was livid when dismissing Ibe from the field.

“It’s completely unacceptable to do something like that,” Rhule said. “There’s bang-bang plays that happen and guys will hit the ground, but you can’t tee off on somebody. It’s not what we’ll do. It’s undisciplined by us.”

Ibe told The Observer after he was waived that he was not aiming for Kirkwood’s head, but instead trying to jar the ball out.

“I looked at him when I landed, and I just felt bad,” Ibe said. “I asked the trainers to tell him I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hit him like that. It wasn’t intentional at all, and I’m praying he’s OK.

“Obviously, I’m in an emotional state right now, but at the end of the day it’s not about me — it’s about Keith being OK.”

When Ibe was told that the team was waiving him, he first asked about Kirkwood’s condition.

Kirkwood, 26, is a former Temple receiver who played for Rhule during his time as the head coach of the Owls. The receiver appeared in just one game during the 2020 season, his first year with the Panthers, after getting surgery on his left broken clavicle and then re-injuring it in the only game he played.

The receiver spent the beginning portion of his career with the New Orleans Saints but also dealt with injuries during his time there, including a hamstring issue.

“Everybody, whether it’s a guy like Keith that I’ve known since I coached him in college, or a guy that just got here a week ago, as a man, as a person, I don’t like seeing anyone laying there in pain or hurting,” Rhule said. “I can’t stand those things. Injuries do happen in football, but it’s really important to me that when our players do get banged up ... that they know their value to me and us it’s not just what they do on the field.”

After both Kirkwood and Ibe left the field, Rhule asked multiple leaders on the team about their thoughts on whether or not they should continue the day’s practice.

“(Rhule) just asked what the mood was like, if we want to keep practicing,” Darnold said. “It was kind of a weird mood for sure, but I think the right decision was to give us a couple minutes, we had a little break there. Then we were able to move on and keep practicing.”

Both Darnold and left tackle Cam Erving expressed after practice that continuing to play after injuries is something that happens often in games, so practiced was handled with a similar mentality.

Following Saturday night’s practice held at Gibbs Stadium, Rhule commented on the team’s need to practice consistently and have less players on the ground. With the pads on for the first time Tuesday, the team’s need to prioritize keeping teammates’ health and safety was emphasized.

“Just staying off the ground,” Darnold said on what the team needs to do better. “Some periods might be live, some periods might be thud. I think live periods, it’s tackle football and we’re going. Other periods when it’s thud, we just got to stay up and protect each other.”

Notes from practice

Running back Darius Clark was also carted off the field Tuesday toward the end of practice. It was not immediately clear what his injury is.

The Panthers were without two first-team defenders for Tuesday’s practice. Linebacker Shaq Thompson and cornerback A.J. Bouye both sat out in red “injured” jerseys. Bouye had a pull in his lower body Monday and may miss a few days of practice. Thompson left Saturday’s practice early and has yet to return fully to the field.

Despite a bad performance by the offense during Monday’s practice, Rhule said that upon watching the tape back, Darnold was the “least of the issues.” The quarterback had two interceptions.

“I was frustrated (Monday) with the false starts and penalties and missed assignments. That’ll never go away. I think sometimes I have to go in and watch tape to see who it was clearly identify who it was,” Rhule said. “(Darnold’s) throwing to the right spot and the wrong guy’s in the way.

“Today was a lot cleaner, we’ll just have to wait and see. I might turn the tape on and say it was a terrible practice. It’s always one feeling out here and then the tape gives you a whole different look.”

Darnold ran a lap around the field during practice after the timing was off during the line of scrimmage.

“I don’t know if it was him or if that was the guard, but there was a cadence issue, and he said, ‘That’s all me,’ ” Rhule said.

The Panthers have two new linebackers on the roster. The team signed Jonathan Celestin, who spent time with team in 2019, and claimed Nate Hall of waivers from the Houston Texans. Hall played in 10 games for the Texans last year.

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