MOBILE, Ala. - New secondary coach Steve Wilks and Panthers head coach Ron Rivera previously have worked together.
More importantly, they've worked well together.
"I hope we can pick up where we left off because when we were last together, we had the number-one defense in the National Football League," Wilks said. "We're truly expecting great things."
With Wilks serving as defensive backs coach and Rivera as defensive coordinator for San Diego in 2010, the Chargers ranked first in the NFL in total defense. It was a similar story when they held the same roles with Chicago in 2006, with the Bears ranking fifth in the league in total defense on their way to the Super Bowl.
The Panthers finished 28th in total defense last year - 24th against the pass - so Wilks and the rest of the defensive staff have spent the week at the Senior Bowl tracking talent that might help spur a turnaround.
"From what I've been able to gather so far, it's probably one of the best classes they've had in years as far as corners and safeties," Wilks said. "As coaches, we're all selfish and feel like you can never have enough players, particularly with the way the game is today and how much passing there is. You want to have as many DBs and corners on your roster as possible, so I'm always lobbying for more guys."
Wilks, hired just last week, said he hasn't yet had a chance to closely study the Panthers' current personnel.
"It's still a little early," he said. "But from afar, I feel like
Wilks couldn't be more excited about his new position. He's a Charlotte native who last coached in his hometown as an assistant at Johnson C. Smith University in the mid-1990s, working within sight of Bank of America Stadium as the Panthers franchise got off the ground.
"You always want to work with a first-class organization, and I feel like the Panthers are with Mr. Richardson and everything that he stands for," Wilks said. "Then when you throw Coach Rivera in the equation and the element of coming home and the love and passion I have for the city of Charlotte, it's definitely a win-win for me."
CORNER BACK IN MOBILE: Count cornerback
"From talking to him, I'm ready to play now," Munnerlyn said. "Hearing some of the stuff he's going to have us doing, I'm ready to play. He's a great guy."
Munnerlyn, a Mobile native, is continuing his long-held tradition of attending the Senior Bowl. His family still lives in Mobile.
"I've been coming out here since I was a little boy," Munnerlyn said. "I remember seeing L.T. (LaDainian Tomlinson) playing in the Senior Bowl (in 2001) when I was a kid. I love seeing guys excelling toward their dreams. I love football, and it's another chance to be around it."
SPECIAL ASSISTANCE: The Panthers' new assistant special teams coach was at the heart of arguably the most famous special teams play in the history of football.
Richard Rodgers was special teams captain for the Cal Bears when they beat Stanford in 1983 with "The Play." He touched the ball twice during the five-lateral kickoff return that ended with teammate Kevin Moen plowing over a Stanford trombone player in the end zone.
That Cal team also featured a linebacker named Ron Rivera.
"I don't know if we'll do anything quite like that, but we will try to make it exciting and be very good on special teams," Rodgers said. "I'm very excited to be here with Coach Rivera. We have a special bond having been teammates and going through the same experiences – we came to Cal together as freshmen. That was special, and hopefully this will be even more special."
In his first NFL job, Rodgers will assist special teams coordinator Brian Murphy. Rodgers, the defensive coordinator at Holy Cross the last six seasons, said he had to remind himself to watch special teams players rather than defensive players at the Senior Bowl.
He oversaw special teams at Portland State from 1997-2000 and helped with special teams at Holy Cross.
"Obviously, special teams became very special to me when 'The Play' happened," Rodgers said. "Throughout my career, I've been able to relate the things that happened that day to coaching in general. The game is never over until it's over, and guys have to contribute on special teams because things like that can happen."
Rodgers shared a rarely discussed fact about, "The Play." Cal had just 10 players on the field, but that it easily could have been 12 with two players claiming afterwards that they were supposed to be in the game. For the record, Rivera wasn't one of those players.