Carolina Panthers linebackers coach Steve Russ leaves the practice fields behind Wofford Stadium dripping wet each day, from the tip of his ball-coach visor to his soaked-through socks.
He is relentlessly, impossibly energetic throughout practice in the 90-degree heat. “Energetic” isn’t even the right word.
He’s furious, but not the word that means “angry.”
The word that means “intense,” like the growl of a revving Mustang.
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“JUIIIIIIIIIIICE,” the linebackers all yell as they break into drills, slapping each other’s pads and jostling into a huddle. Russ is always right there with them, bumping shoulders and screaming.
It’s Russ’s first year as an NFL coach, and he is charged with continuing the excellence expected from veterans such as Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson.
But he’s also responsible for building the future, which could be on the roster after the Panthers drafted two rookies, Jermaine Carter Jr. in the fifth round and Andre Smith in the seventh, and signed undrafted free agent Chris Frey.
Pressure? Sure. But it’s clear by watching Russ fly around furiously that he’s also furiously happy.
“I tell you what, I love our group. I couldn’t have walked into a better situation from a linebacker standpoint,” Russ said. “And I’m not just talking about the first three guys. I’m talking about from top to bottom. ... They’re really the complete package in every way, shape and form.”
The rookies on the team are especially responding to Russ’s coaching style.
Maybe they feel a kinship with him because it’s their first year, too. And it’s clear they feel respected by him, even though they share a room with stars, carry their pads and buy them snacks (pretzels for Kuechly, honey buns for Thompson and “literally anything he wants” for Davis).
“(Russ) works with us (rookies) and treats us just how he treats TD and Luke,” Smith said. “He wants us to be professional and grown men, you know he doesn’t hold our hands, but he also gives us an opportunity to learn and to grow. He’s always calling on us in the meeting room.
“He’s kind of different. He’s not out there cursing or anything. He’s going to tell you what you did wrong and expect you to fix it.”
A relatable energy
And they have responded to Russ.
“He has that same energy when we’re in the meeting room,” said Carter. “He’s not a guy who is going to come out here and fake and be somebody else. He’s just that way all of the time.”
Smith and Carter were drafted by the Panthers because they’re athletic, can rush the passer, can defend the run, can cover and run sideline to sideline.
They’re also really, really smart players — so much so that Kuechly was prompted to point to their football I.Q. as a reason he thinks the current linebackers room is the best it’s ever been in Carolina.
It’s the hardest room in the NFL for a rookie linebacker to crack. But Carter and Smith have a shot, and much of that is how well they’ve mentally adjusted to the Panthers’ system even before the first game of the preseason.
“That’s something I’ve always stressed,” Smith said. “Going into college (at UNC), I played a lot as a freshman and I think that’s a true testament of that. I just feel like you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have the physical tools. It’s the mental things that separate you.”
Mentors on the field
Carter, a former team captain and middle linebacker at Maryland, watched a lot of Davis and Kuechly on tape as he prepared for the draft and now is learning directly from the two in the meeting room every day.
He and Smith both abide by the same self-imposed rule: When the veterans speak, keep your mouth shut and your ears open.
“I’m not going to talk back to those guys,” Carter said. “They’ve been doing this for a long time. If they say something, they’re not just saying it for their health. There’s a good reason. I just try to take everything in and try to perform to the best of my abilities.”
Carter and Smith have rotated into first- and second-team defensive snaps at times during camp, and they will see a lot of the field as the preseason games begin.
That’s when they’ll really have the opportunity to prove they can be a part of the future.
And of course, Russ has energetically made his expectations for Thursday’s preseason game at Buffalo very clear.
“I want to see them go out there and play to the speed and the standard of the Carolina defense,” he said. “I want to see them go out there and quarterback the defense. It’ll be a loud environment. It’ll be the first time that they’re kind of away from practice. Can we get the defense lined up and ready to go?
“I want to see us play with great physicality and precision in the run game. Wrecking it. Getting downhill. Destroying it. And I want to see us play with great fanatical effort.
“If we can start with that, that’s the standard. I want them to show me they understand what the standard is.”