Charlotte diners who notice a pair of hulking figures – one in a sweatshirt, the other in a ponytail – ripping into a plate of chicken wings Thursday should walk up to their table and say hello.
Despite helping the Panthers become the NFL’s top rushing team, second-year guards Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner don’t get recognized much in public, even on their wing night, which is now a weekly tradition.
While fans might still be trying to figure out who Norwell and Turner are, teammates and coaches know all about their blocking prowess and the close bond they’ve developed off the field.
And that’s enough for them.
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“(Teammates) celebrate with me every time we score. Our coaches tell me good job. I’m fine,” Turner said. “I just want to win, man. Everything else will take care of itself.”
The two guards have teamed with Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil to form an interior line that spearheads a rushing attack averaging a league-best 144.7 yards per game.
The guards could be counted on more Monday night: Kalil is doubtful for the matchup with Indianapolis (3-4) with an ankle injury. Veteran Fernando Velasco would start at center if Kalil is out.
If the Panthers (6-0) extend their franchise-record streak of 17 regular-season games with at least 100 rushing yards, it’s safe to assume the two guards will have played big parts in the production.
Both guards are ranked in the top 10 at their position in Pro Football Focus’ ratings: Turner has the fourth-best grade among the guards, and Norwell is eighth.
“You look at guys like Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner, who were rookies starting on the offensive line last year. But they’ve got a year of experience now and they know that they’re able to play in this league,” fullback Mike Tolbert said. “It takes time to learn that for yourself and to build that confidence.”
Distinct paths to similar spots
Norwell and Turner arrived in Charlotte together last spring having taken similar, yet distinct paths to the NFL.
Turner, who grew up in New Orleans, was 20 when he turned pro after his redshirt sophomore season at LSU. The Panthers drafted him in the third round last year, confident the 6-foot-3, 320-pound Turner would be strong and nasty enough to engage defensive tackles inside, and quick and agile enough to pull and block linebackers and defensive backs in space.
Norwell, who’s from suburban Cincinnati, went undrafted out of Ohio State despite starting three seasons and twice being named first-team All-Big Ten. The Panthers liked Norwell’s size (6-6, 325) and physicality, and offered him a free-agent contract.
Norwell’s older brother, Chris, had signed with New England in 2008 as an undrafted free agent out of Illinois.
Chris Norwell, a defensive lineman who spent time with the Patriots and Vikings, retired from football after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma shortly after Minnesota cut him in 2008. He’s now cancer-free and working as a coach.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Norwell was raw when the Panthers signed him, at least when matched against a defensive lineman one-on-one.
“When we first got him and we did some one-on-one drills and you watched him, I thought to myself, ‘This guy’s terrible,’ ” Rivera said. “Then all of a sudden, you put a center and a tackle next to him, he fits like a glove. Individually, it’s not very good but man you put him in the group setting and he flourished.”
Thrown in the fire together
Norwell and Turner clicked immediately in part because of proximity. They played the same position and were side-by-side for every meeting and drill during rookie minicamp and OTAs.
“We were thrown into that fire together. We had to know pretty much the same thing on opposite sides,” Turner said. “So we studied together, asked questions with each other. Whatever we needed to do to get going and get ahead of the game.”
Norwell was inactive for the first six games in 2014, but ended up starting the final 10 weeks after injuries and inconsistency at the position.
Turner fought through injuries as a rookie to become a starter, beginning with a groin pull at training camp and continuing with a knee injury that kept him out of three games around midseason.
But the offensive line finally solidified in November when Turner got healthy and returned at right guard opposite Norwell on the left side. The Panthers started the same line the last five regular-season games, winning four of them to capture the NFC South for the second year in a row.
Quarterback Cam Newton says that consistency up front – left tackle Michael Oher is the only new starter – has helped fuel the Panthers’ streak of 10 consecutive regular-season wins.
Tolbert said the interior linemen have keyed the success in the run game.
“That’s the point of attack. They’re pulling and they’re the guys driving the big guys off the ball at the point of attack,” he said. “So you control the line, control the point of attack, it’s free money up in there.”
‘We feed off each other’
Norwell and Turner balance each other with complementary personalities. Norwell is more serious and his intensity on the field helps fire up the more laid-back Turner.
And when Norwell gets too keyed up, Turner is able to help him chill.
“Trai kind of calms me out a little bit. Every once in a while, relax,” Norwell said. “He’s just level-headed sometimes. He calms me down a little bit and I get him going. We feed off each other.”
They also feed on a dozen wings each every Thursday, trying different spots around Charlotte.
Norwell gets his with spicy garlic sauce, with a water to drink. Turner orders a dozen lemon pepper wings and an Arnold Palmer iced tea.
“I usually have water,” Norwell said. “We’ve got to stay hydrated.”
Offensive tackle David Foucault joined the Panthers last year as a rookie with Norwell and Turner. Foucault, a French-Canadian, is not a part of wing night.
“He’s from Canada. They really don’t eat that too much,” Turner joked.
Norwell said he and Turner “go incognito” to the wing joints. That means a hoodie and a baseball cap for Turner, and a rubber band for Norwell’s hair, which he hasn’t cut in six years.
None of the other linemen get an invite.
A college existence
Turner says he and Norwell are still living a college existence, without family obligations to tend to after practices and meetings wrap up.
“He just (turned) 24. I’m 22. This is college for us,” Turner said. “In college, I’m going to mess with my teammates. I’m going to do this. The NFL is not too much like that because you’ve got Kalil going home to his kids. Both Mikes (Oher and Remmers) are going home to their families. So who’s left? Me and Norwell.”
Remmers says the guards’ friendship was forged as rookies.
“Those guys, they’re inseparable,” Remmers said. “They bonded a lot last year and grew up a lot together last year. I think they’re for sure going to be friends for the rest of their lives.”
Rivera smiled when he was asked about the friendship between his second-year guards.
“They’re uniquely different. Just from where they’re from, where they played their college ball, where they grew up to all the other things,” Rivera said. “But they come in this building, there is a bond they have and part of it is having been rookies together.”
A formidable combo
Rivera says the two guards are more comfortable in the offense this season and have improved their blocking technique. Remmers called the guards’ play “amazing.”
“Those guys, you can tell how much they care and how much it means to them,” Remmers added. “Not just in games, but in practice they bring it every day and it’s fun to be around. It’s fun to play next to them.”
Tolbert said the development of the guards has made for a formidable interior line.
“Kalil has always been a staple. He’s a Pro Bowler, All-Pro for a reason,” Tolbert said. “But then when you get two young guys that are hungry, just as hungry as Kalil is, and they start playing Pro Bowl-caliber football, you get to be No. 1 in the league rushing for a reason.”
Turner, whose 4.93-second clocking in the 40 was the fastest time among guards at the 2014 combine, is faster than Norwell. The two say Turner might even be a little stronger in the weight room.
“But on the field, he’s different,” Turner said of Norwell’s game strength. “I’m not even going to touch that.”
‘That’s my guy’
The two like to jab at each other good-naturedly. Turner says Norwell’s hair makes him looks like The Undertaker from WWE, while Turner’s black-rimmed glasses earned him the nickname, “the Professor,” from general manager Dave Gettleman.
Norwell mistakenly thought the nicknamed derived from Eddie Murphy’s character in “The Nutty Professor.”
Turner laughs it off and the two start to head out of the locker room together one afternoon late last week. Both have a little down time before Monday’s game; next Thursday there will be more wings to eat.
Turner is seldom at a loss for words. But he says he can’t explain what makes he and Norwell click.
“I don’t even know what it is. In practice and games and meetings and life in general, that’s my guy,” Turner said. “He’s my best friend off the field.”