CHARLOTTE — With players back in the building, going through walk-throughs and strength and conditioning work, it's starting to feel more like football.
But that doesn't mean things are normal.
"I don't think any of these guys have even seen my face in person yet because I constantly have my mask on," head coach Matt Rhule said with a laugh on Friday.
As the Panthers continue to prepare to play during a global pandemic, that might be a good thing. As detailed in Thursday night's series premiere of "Road to Restart," the organization has put in Herculean effort to keep everyone safe during this modified 2020 training camp.
So far, it's worked.
"When you're here, you feel a real sense of calm when you're in this building because you know, A, everyone's being tested, and B, we're socially distanced," Rhule said. "We're walking around with contact tracers. It's not like people are kind of wearing masks — people are wearing masks. We're taking it so seriously that you feel really comfortable and calm and safe being here.
"I know for me, when I'm here, I say to myself after being in it, there's no doubt that I think we should be able to make this happen and play really good football this year."
Through Friday afternoon, Carolina has not had to place anyone on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Rhule credited the players, coaches, and the rest of the Panthers' staff for taking all necessary precautions to make that the case.
"They've done the things it takes to not get it," Rhule said. "I think it's key for every person who works in this building to A, make sure they're doing the best that they can to stay healthy, and then, B, they follow all the protocols. So when something does happen — and something eventually will happen — we don't get everybody sick."
Rhule is also pleased his players showed up in shape. That's allowed the team to focus more on learning and implementing the scheme. One of the Panthers' biggest challenges may be overcoming the little things they'd typically have figured out by now.
"This is a different year. You're not bringing guys in for tryouts and physicals, all those different things. There's a lot of different rules. So the people that are here, we've got to come together," Rhule said. "We're telling guys, 'Hey, if you've ever played offense before, we're going to do five minutes of offense.'
"In a year with COVID where you might have to build from within, we're approaching this like it's not even a college football team — it's more like a high school football team in terms of, the more you can do, the more you can do."
Part of that depends on veteran leadership. Like all of the players who have held media availability this week, Rhule praised quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for taking command of the offense. For example, Bridgewater asked to have the music turned off at practice because the offense needed to lock in on details.
Defensively, Rhule pointed to linebacker Shaq Thompson as an example of a veteran stepping up.
"Seeing the way he's taking care of his body, seeing the way he approaches his work every day, seeing when he comes in early in the morning, he's in the weight room talking to the O-line, talking to (other positions)," Rhule said, "he's connecting with people on the team — that's real leadership."
"That's All-Pro weight for him, and he's done it with hard work," Rhule said. "He's a consummate professional."
Rhule also said defensive end Efe Obada had "a tremendous offseason," nothing the multiple roles the 6-foot-6 lineman could play.
"He can be a defensive end. He can go inside and be a sub defensive tackle, can play in an odd (three-down linemen) package, can play in a four-down package," Rhule said. "I think he's going to have a really nice year for us, and I say that based upon all the work he did this offseason."
The coaching staff may like their first impressions of players. Still, it's crunch time to seriously evaluate them with limited information from now until Week 1. Players won't start practicing in pads for another 10 days. Because of that, the process has already begun with meetings.
"You see who's serious. You see what people know, and then you get on the field with them, and you see who's playing at what level," Rhule said. "We're trying to make sure as a coaching staff, our purpose is to help each player play better.
"We're taking advantage of every minute of every day. This isn't a country club training camp, and they're answering the call."
And without the benefit of preseason games, Rhule expects padded practices to be highly competitive.
"It's going to have to be a lot of offense versus defense," he said. "Obviously, there's guys who are entrenched, maybe don't need as many reps. There's some other guys that are trying to solidify themselves as bona fide starters, and then guys fighting for jobs. So we'll have to have a really competitive camp to have a good team."
With North Carolina scheduled to be in "Phase 2" of reopening through early September, there are no guarantees fans will be allowed in the stands when the Panthers host the Raiders in Week 1. Rhule hasn't necessarily thought that far but did compare the situation to how NFL teams win on a game-to-game basis.
"The approach I've tried to take to all this is even as these protocols or rules (are implemented), things can be different on Wednesday than they were on Monday," Rhule said. "The person who adjusts the best and the quickest wins in this game. So if there's no one in the stands, we'll be ready to play, and if it's packed, we'll be ready to play."
So as the Panthers continue through this unique time, again, it may not be normal. But at least it's football.
View photos from Friday's walk-through during training camp.