CHARLOTTE — Thursday night should have been the Panthers' first preseason game against the Jaguars. Maybe in an alternate non-pandemic universe, it actually happened.
In reality, Carolina's first full-speed practice complete with helmets and practice jerseys happened Friday. Even though the situation is not ideal, first-year head coach Matt Rhule appreciated the energy and tempo during the session.
"I was really proud of the team today," he said. "I thought (for the) first competitive practice, it was spirited, it was fast. I like coaching those kinds of teams."
Earlier this week, veteran defenders Stephen Weatherly and Tahir Whitehead praised the modified training camp schedule. Both thought the ramp-up period was beneficial to Carolina's rookies, who have had more time to understand the playbook's nuances. But veterans and coaches have also gained plenty from this unique camp.
"The eight days of acclimation into the four-day ramp-up, I think it's been a great schedule. I think it's allowed us to stay pretty healthy, build up to where we got the guys today," Rhule said. "I've been really pleased. I think guys have the right attitude, practiced hard, and it's looked good to me."
The spring and summer were tough on Carolina's rookies, mainly because they missed out on an in-person offseason program. Now, slowing things down seems to be paying dividends for the first-year players.
"I really liked them coming in and having time just to lift, just to run, and just to sit in meetings, and then go to walk-through — slow it down so that when you speed it up now, there's still a ton of mistakes. But they've had a chance to go through this. They're not overwhelmed," Rhule said.
Now that the Panthers are finally in a full-speed practice mode, Rhule wants to make every aspect competitive. Whitehead, who played his college ball at Temple when Rhule was the program's offensive coordinator, noted Rhule encourages coaches to run with the players.
Addressing that on Friday, Rhule said:
"Sometimes in football, coaches have a tendency to stand around and talk a lot. Guys aren't really engaged. We don't want that. So if that means coaches are going to run conditioning with the players, coaches are going to run conditioning with the players. If that means coaches are going to be the scout team, coaches are going to be the scout team."
To that end, the Panthers plan to do plenty of first-team offense versus first-team defense drills the next few weeks, especially because there won't be preseason games. There will also be a scrimmage or two so that Week 1 won't be the first time players are going "live."
"We'll try to rotate guys to give guys different opportunities," Rhule said. "I think we'll mix it between ones and ones, and ones and twos — try to get the young guys to a chance to see what they can do versus some vets."
The Panthers are already taking steps to emulate game-day procedures, like having offensive coordinator Joe Brady call plays into quarterback Teddy Bridgewater's helmet during practice. The timing of the play-calling operation is different for much of the coaching staff since many were at the college level last year.
"Getting back to being in a huddle, it's kind of fun for me. It just feels like what I grew up with. So I think we'll be OK with it," Rhule said. "I think the biggest thing we can do right now is try to create as many game-like situations as possible, so when we get to the games, we're prepared for them."
Thursday, of course, should have been the first time to test those procedures in Jacksonville. Rhule admitted it hit him last night just how quickly that would have come, had the Panthers played. But now, it's ratcheted up the intensity for what Carolina must do between now and kickoff against Las Vegas on Sept. 13.
"It gave me a sense of reality," Rhule said. "I have a burning sense of urgency, and I want our coaches and players to have that as well. The games are coming, and we just have to keep improving."
View photos from Friday's practice at Panthers training camp.