Forget the unforgiving sun, the sweat pooling under his dark pullover and the 115-degree heat indexes.
Training camp was like a rum-soaked, three-week Caribbean vacation for Panthers linebackers coach Al Holcomb.
With three first-round picks and a couple of All-Pros at his disposal, Holcomb could have rolled out the tackling dummies, thrown on some sunscreen and kicked back on the hill overlooking Wofford’s practice fields with a Kindle and fruity drink while Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson coached themselves.
“Man, that is totally false,” Davis said after the Panthers wrapped up camp Tuesday. “Al probably has the hardest job coaching job of any of the coaches because of the expectation level.
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“When you look at our room, given the fact that we have three first-round picks and a bunch of other highly-skilled players, it’s going to make his job that much harder to make sure that we’re going out and performing at a high level. And Al does a great job of pushing us day in and day out to be the best that we can be.”
Complicating matters for Holcomb is the fact that Big Brothers are watching.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott are both former linebackers coaches, and Rivera played linebacker for the Bears for nine seasons.
“If I see something that I disagree with, unfortunately for Al, he hears it,” Rivera said.
‘We talk football’
But Holcomb has maintained a thick skin and an open mind while creating an atmosphere of mutual respect in a meeting room brimming with strong personalities and talented players who happen to know a lot about the game, as well.
“We talk football in there. We go into great detail with the X’s-and-O’s and the scenarios, and we break it down from a standpoint of well, what if this? What if this? What if this?” Holcomb said.
“Being high-intellect players and very good players, those guys want answers and I have to give them solutions, which I’ve been able to do.”
Holcomb was hired in 2013 after Rivera chose not to retain former linebackers coach Warren Belin.
Holcomb, 45, was a low-level assistant with the Giants for four seasons before following Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman to Charlotte. Before breaking into the NFL, Holcomb held a series of positions at several small colleges in the Northeast.
He inherited a veteran group of Panthers linebackers featuring Davis, Jon Beason and James Anderson, as well as Kuechly, who had led the league in tackles while winning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Holcomb knew he had to be himself to be earn their respect.
“When you have your own room, no matter what position group it is, players are going to challenge you because they want to know what you know and they want to find out if you’re the real deal,” Holcomb said. “When they feel like a coach can’t help them, I think that’s when things go a little bit astray.”
The Panthers finished second in the NFL in total defense during Holcomb’s first season. And he has watched Kuechly and Davis become the most decorated linebacker duo in the league.
Davis, 33, the NFL’s Man of the Year in 2014, earned his first Pro Bowl berth last season. Holcomb would like to think he played a small role in it.
“We’ve kind of grown together and I just happen to be the person who’s coaching him at this point and stage of his career,” Holcomb said. “So I think that’s strengthened our bond. And he feels, just like I do, that we’ve kind of established and built some things together as well.”
Thompson, last year’s first-round pick, is the latest to emerge from the Panthers’ linebacker-rich pipeline. The former University of Washington safety/linebacker/running back is coming off a stellar training camp and looks to be on the verge of a big season.
Holcomb doesn’t play favorites. Neither does his son, Alex, an eighth-grader who plays quarterback – and linebacker, naturally – for his middle school team.
“He admires all of them,” Holcomb said. “They’re all on his screensaver. They have all signed his Fathead.”
Holcomb and the linebackers don’t shy away from greatness. There’s a sign in their meeting room that reads: “The standard is the standard.”
His group expects to establish it for the entire defense.
“Those guys believe in that,” Holcomb said. “They believe that they can be special and that they play above the X’s-and-O’s.”
They’ve been so special that there could be a perception that Holcomb has a cake job and does little more than flip on the video projector during positions meetings.
“It’s like they say, ‘Just don’t screw it up,’” Rivera said, smiling. “I think Al’s done a great job. He’s taken really good command of that room. I think those guys respect him.”