Offensive line coach John Matsko said Byron Bell and Amini Silatolu have, “want-to.”
The coaching term for willpower and determination sticks to the second-year tackle Bell and rookie guard Silatolu, both of whom are starters on a Panthers offensive line that features three other players with an average of eight years of NFL experience.
“Those two guys have three things that you really like: They have size, they’re smart and they’re tough,” Matsko said. “You got size, and you’re smart and you’re tough — and you have some mobility — you have a chance. So it makes our job challenging, but a lot of fun to work with these guys.”
Bell has had to fill the role vacated by the oft-injured, former first-round pick Jeff Otah, while Silatolu has never played a regular-season down in the NFL.
To make it through the preseason with their jobs intact, as well as being fully prepared for Week 1 of the season, the two keep a watchful eye and listening ear on the veterans and Matsko on the practice field.
Bell remembers what it was like this time last year. He recalls the difficulty of training camp and the pressure of cut day. The Panthers were the only team to give the undrafted rookie from New Mexico a tryout, and he made such an impression that he was Otah’s understudy to start the year.
But when Otah went out with another left knee injury in Week 7, Bell was thrust into the starting role on a line protecting the team’s No. 1 draft pick at quarterback and opening holes for one of the most prolific rushing attacks in the league.
“Coming in, I had to have a starter’s mentality. I have to help the group out week in and week out,” Bell said. “It’s big shoes to fill. I know I have a lot of eyes on me, and I have to perform at the highest level.”
Bell has gleaned as much as he can from eight-year veteran Geoff Hangartner. Bell mentioned the guard, whom he plays beside, by name as a player who’s helped him the most.
But Hangartner humbly said he’s not teaching Bell; he’s just communicating with him like any other lineman.
“He hasn’t played a whole lot,” Hangartner said. “He’s done a great job when he has played, but he doesn’t have a ton of experience. So it’s more I’m trying to pass along some experience to him.”
That experience comes in handy for Bell when Hangartner, Ryan Kalil and Jordan Gross take a seat with the rest of the offensive starters in the preseason. In the first two preseason games, Bell and Silatolu have been left on the field to anchor the second-string defense, and the numbers suggest they’ve done well.
In the first half against the Houston Texans, the offensive line gave up three sacks. Against the Miami Dolphins last week, the line gave up zero in the first half.
A big transition
Hailing from Midwestern State, Silatolu had never played the guard position before the Panthers picked him with the 40th overall selection in April’s draft.
He admits switching from left tackle — where he was a two-time All-Lone Star Conference pick in college — to guard was harder than he anticipated. He expected the transition would be smoother, but compounding the move with taking his game to the NFL level has proved more difficult.
“It takes time to put your hand on the ground and learn how to pass block and run block from the stance,” he said. “And picking up the plays as well. … The playbook is huge.
“I had to start from the bottom. When I first came in, there were a bunch of free agents that I was feeding off of because I had never played the position. I had to learn. It was real tough in the beginning.”
Silatolu replaced veteran Travelle Wharton, whom the Panthers released in March in a cost-cutting move. Wharton was part of a line that helped the offense rank first in rushing yards per attempt and 10th in third-down efficiency.
But Matsko has confidence in the rookie, saying he’s growing every day. And Silatolu’s fellow linemen back him as well.
“He was a blank slate when he came in and didn’t really have a great understanding of football and how to play offensive line technically or schematically — twist games and blitzes,” Gross said. “I mean, he played at a small level his whole life. So he’s had a huge jump. He’s doing great. In the meeting room, he’s handling all the stuff that Coach Matsko’s throwing at him. He’s putting the pressure on him, and he’s handling being a rookie pretty well.”
Bell said he, Silatolu and the rest of the offensive line will have to, “lock in,” the meeting room as they prepare for the New York Jets and Rex Ryan’s defense. Coach Ron Rivera hopes to have his starters on the field into the third quarter for as many as 45 plays on Sunday night.
It will be the biggest challenge of the preseason for the young linemen, and Bell and Silatolu said they’re ready for it.
“This will be a real good test for both of those guys,” Rivera said. “This is a multi-front defense so they’re going to get a lot of different guys coming at them. So it’ll be interesting to see how they handle that.”