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Carolina Panthers

Jeff Nixon hoping to make more highlight reels

Jeff Nixon

CHARLOTTE — There was a time when Jeff Nixon trusted Matt Rhule with his college football recruiting future.

Now, Rhule's trusting Nixon to help stabilize the team's offense for the season's final five games.

The Panthers' head coach and the new play-caller have known each other since high school, the kind of familiarity that transcends working together at any particular stop along the way. Their relationship is one that allows for hard truths and honest conversations. And now, they're working to make the best of a season beset by issues on that side of the ball.

Nixon found his way back to being Rhule's play-caller after the team parted ways with offensive coordinator Joe Brady Sunday. Nixon called plays for Rhule at Baylor, so he's a known commodity, and that can only help when the Panthers don't have time to make seismic changes to the playbook or the philosophy.

"I'm a fundamental guy," Nixon said Thursday. "I don't want to do too many new things. I want to keep it where players can go out, and they can play fast and play tough and know their assignments, and they can go out and play solid football while attacking the defense and trying to create explosive plays in both the run and pass game.

"We're not trying to reinvent the wheel or anything like that, but we have enough offense in in our current system where we're going to be able to add a new wrinkle or two, some plays we haven't run for a while, and maybe clean up some things we've had trouble with."

Those who have been around the Panthers' senior offensive assistant and running backs coach believe he's well-suited for the job at hand. Veteran defensive coordinator Phil Snow said that even though Nixon's "a really quiet" guy, there's a baseline of extreme competence about everything he does.

"He's well-qualified to do what he's going to do," Snow said. "I think everybody's excited about that. I think one thing is; he has some old-school in him, that will run the football. He knows the importance of running the football, obviously he's a running backs coach too.

"And his knowledge of the game. He's been around the game a long time, at this level. He knows how the league works, the defensive schemes, . . . I think he'll do great."

In addition to having worked for Rhule at Baylor, Nixon also had 10 years of NFL experience before coming here, working for the Eagles, Dolphins, and 49ers in roles including running backs, tight ends, and special teams. That background, and their shared history, made it easy for Rhule to trust Nixon with their play-calling at Baylor.

"Obviously as his coordinator at Baylor, he feels comfortable we can be on the same page, of how he wants the game to be called," Nixon said. "We're not all of a sudden going to put in a brand new offense in two to three days so I think he feels comfortable with my knowledge of the offensive system, comfortable knowing how I'm going to call the game and how he wants this offense to look for the next five or hopefully more Sundays."

The two went to high school together in State College, Penn., where Nixon was the star running back who grew up in Western Pennsylvania, and Rhule the center on the football team and a sneaky good basketball player who moved there from New York City.

Rhule recalled his teammate's strength back then, saying Nixon could bench press 225 pounds "like 20-some times when we were in 10th grade and 11th grade. I certainly could not."

And Nixon recalled Rhule as "more athletic than you'd think."

"You look at him like, well, ..." Nixon said with a grin. "Especially in basketball now, he's from New York. He was a really good basketball player, he's a good athlete."

But Rhule's first assist in Nixon's football career came via some early video dubbing technology. Rhule used a pair of VHS machines and some early 90s music tracks (Pete Rock and TL Smooth, Das EFX) to make a recruiting video.

"I was digital enough I could hook up two VCRs and put a soundtrack to it, and make his highlight film for him," Rhule said with a grin.

Nixon laughed and said he still produces the tape from time to time (and still has a working VCR to play it on), much to the delight of his kids. While they might be entertained by the music and the ancient technology, Nixon admitted the actual game tape might not be as impressive as he recalled, though it didn't keep him from a scholarship at West Virginia (before he transferred to Penn State to rejoin Rhule).

"It would look kind of slow; I know that," Nixon said of his own play. "This guy was a Division I scholarship player? Those VHS tapes, they look like you're running in mud."

He did allow that you'd also see "a tough, physical, hard-nosed player. A good player, I'm not going to say great. But I did make some plays. You see a tough, hard, physical player."

Chuba Hubbard, Jeff Nixon

That also lines up with what Rhule wants to see from the offense Nixon and the rest of the staff will be producing the final five weeks of the season.

"It isn't just play-calling, as much as adjusting and probing and finding the things that work," Rhule said of Nixon's style. "Jeff is very even-keeled, he's about the right things — technique, detail, and I think he and the offensive staff are going to do a good job of reacting to, hey, this is what they're doing."

Rhule mentioned the fact the Panthers only have 18 offensive points in third quarters this year (25 total including Frankie Luvu's blocked punt which was recovered for a touchdown against Minnesota) as a particular point of emphasis.

"I'd like to see us be a team that adjusts as the game goes on and reacts to how people play us," Rhule said.

When asked about that topic Thursday, Nixon said it will depend on communication among the staff before halftime, and being honest with each other about what's going on during the game.

He and Rhule can have those hard conversations together, which Rhule mentioned from the time they came to Charlotte.

"I told Jeff when I came here he wasn't going to be the offensive coordinator, I was going to ask him to come here as a senior offensive assistant," Rhule said. "We're tremendous friends, but when I walk in the building, it's all about the Carolina Panthers."

Coupled with Nixon's work ethic, and the time he puts into the people on the job, Rhule's hopeful it's a good fit, saying: "I like the way he's attacked it so far."

"I think the biggest thing with being a coordinator is getting everyone on the same page," Nixon said. "Staff and players on the team, getting everybody moving in the right direction. It's helpful when you've got great people around you. I thought we had a great staff at Baylor, and we all worked well together and were all on the same page. Same thing here. . . .

"At this point, we're just kind of building on what we've done well this season and correct the things we haven't done as well. It's impossible to put in a while offensive system in two or three days. . . . For me, football is football, you see a lot of the same concepts. So we try to improve things we didn't do well, and maybe add things we practiced in the past, but got away from."

And if it works, they can always put together some new film footage, as they take the next step in their careers together.

View photos from Thursday's practice as the Panthers prepare to take on Atlanta this weekend.

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