Like everyone else, this has been a particularly unusual offseason for Panthers director of player wellness Kent Johnston.
When head coach Matt Rhule hired him earlier this year, Johnston assumed he'd start to get to know players when they returned to begin their offseason program in early April. Instead, he's been limited to select interactions through a screen.
"They meet us over the computer. But as you well know, that's not like knowing somebody," Johnston said in a phone interview this week. "But at the same time, it's the hand you're dealt. You better learn to deal with it and deal with it the best way you can, you know? That's what we're trying to do. We're trying to be proactive and not reactive to what's going on."
With more than two decades of NFL experience, Johnston's role is, as he put it, to oversee what goes on "downstairs" in the Panthers' building.
"Athletic training, being a facilitator for our medical staff of doctors, strength and conditioning, applied science, analytics, nutrition and any coordination that those departments need to have together," Johnston said. "And reporting for those departments to coach Rhule and (general manager) Marty (Hurney) upstairs."
Johnston accumulated more than 20 years of experience as a strength and conditioning coach in the NFL, a journey that included stops in Tampa Bay, Green Bay, Seattle, Cleveland and San Diego. Johnston retired from the league in 2017 but then joined Rhule at Baylor for two seasons.
Johnston, a Central Texas native, had already relocated to the Waco area, and his son, Clay, was a Baylor linebacker. The elder Johnston met with Rhule a couple of times before he signed on to help oversee the program's return-to-play protocols.
"Over that period of time, I really came to respect and trust (Rhule) and just see what an outstanding job he did with the players and obviously the turnaround," Johnston said. "When he took the (Panthers) job, he knew I had some league experience, and he asked me if I wanted to be a part of it. So I said sure, I'm all in."
Now, as Carolina conducts a virtual offseason program, the club isn't doing a virtual workout portion in conjunction with it. But Johnston and the rest of the wellness staff are still making workouts available for players taking part in the voluntary program.
"That's true of probably every team in the NFL, but because of the nature of everything at this point and being voluntary, it's up to them," Johnston said.
To that end, Johnston feels good about the leadership of the staff that's been implemented within his part of the organization.
Andrew Althoff, director of human performance
"He's in charge of our applied sciences," Johnston said. "That's just the IT in football — the GPS units, those instrumentations that are just tools that are part of a bigger toolbox that you use to try to predicate and help guys in terms of their injury risk management."
Kevin King, head athletic trainer
"Kevin was an assistant and has been at Carolina for a number of years," Johnston said. "When we came in, he said he would interview for the head job and, when he did, he just hit a grand slam. As an organization, we saw that we had the best man for the job already in our own building."
Jeremy Scott, strength and conditioning coach
"Jeremy has been with Coach Rhule for years, so they've got a really good working relationship," Johnston said. "And then Jeremy and I have known each other, and there's been a great connection there. Really, Jeremy's a great guy. He's a super human being and he's a good, good coach."
Kate Callaway, director of performance nutrition
"She's in charge of both nutrition in the building and nutrition when we're on the road, and coordinating that with the food services in the various hotels or wherever we'll be, in terms of road games or local hotel," Johnston said. "Her job's a pretty big job, and she does individual consultation with the players on top of that."
So while Johnston and the rest of the staff continue to wait on in-person interaction with players, he's confident they'll be prepared when everyone can return to the building.
"I'm excited about our team," Johnston said. "And obviously, as I said before, the whole goal is to serve those players in helping them be the best they can be."
View photos of the Panthers 2020 opponents throughout the years.