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Panthers building new offense, defense, and culture in spring

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CHARLOTTE — When Panthers rookie coach Dave Canales talks about what he's learned in the last three months of the offseason program, he can become very granular and discuss pre-snap operations or the tempo of certain practice periods, or he can go 30,000-foot-view and talk about vibes.

Either way, he likes what he's seen.

The Panthers wrapped up their mandatory minicamp with Wednesday's practice. While there will be some meetings on Thursday, it was the last on-field work until they report to training camp in late July.

And for a guy who is new to this place and these people — he was literally shaking hands and introducing himself on his way into his first team meeting here — Canales has come to the conclusion that he walked into a better spot than he may have realized at the time he took the job.

Dave Canales

"I come into it thinking, am I going to have to set the culture and the environment for every area of this?" Canales said. "And I was ready to, and I was just watching and just trying to see where I can inject energy or focus or work into these different areas.

"And what I came into was a group that already knows how to work, a group that knows how to create a great locker room environment. You hear them, they're in there talking, the music's going, there's just a great energy in there when they get into the weight room. How seriously they take that, and the guys utilizing the athletic training room to their benefit. So a lot of these things that you want and expect from a pro team, these guys have that, and they have that standard already set.

"And I'm just like, great, let's keep doing this, and really pointing the newer guys that just showed up to us to look at what these other guys are doing. If you don't have a plan, guys, just copy one of theirs. They have a great idea about what they want to do. So that really exceeded my expectations. I really was open to see what it was, but it was, it was fantastic for me to see that culture."

That's not the kind of thing one expects when they take over a team that went 2-15, but Canales pointed to a core of leaders that he inherited.

He's cited Derrick Brown at many points this offseason but specifically mentioned Chuba Hubbard and Tommy Tremble as examples of guys who put in the work to change the course of a franchise, or the extra time put in by lesser-known players including Dicaprio Bootle and Jordan Matthews.

Building that kind of culture isn't the kind of thing you can quantify, but Canales can quickly pivot to more specific discussions, about plays and players, schemes and adjustments. He praised the job quarterback Bryce Young has done identifying things and adjusting on the fly. He talked about the way the new interior of the offensive line has stood out as a strength, even without pads on. He's hailed the defense's emphasis on creating turnovers based on seeing how seriously his backs and receivers take ball security in practice.

But because Canales was brought here to fix the offense that ranked last in the league in 2023, and because that's such a point of attention, that's obviously been a focus.

Young has been the beneficiary of Canales' microscopic attention, and as a result, the quarterback said he's sensing the beginning of a new personality here.

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"I'm super-super-excited, super-proud of how well as an offense we've adapted," Young said. "It's been great working with the new staff. Then, you start to see the ins and outs, and we start to form our own identity. And just the way we've come together, I think we're really hungry.

"We have a lot of that; we want to improve that. We want to get better, and we kind of all have that buy-in, and we all have that chip on our shoulder. So, super-excited about the process that we have an identity."

That wasn't something anyone said a year ago, which is why the makeover was so dramatic.

So in addition to Canales and a whole new offensive staff, they remade the offensive line by signing guards Robert Hunt and Damien Lewis, moving Austin Corbett into center. Then they traded for wide receiver Diontae Johnson , and added offensive weapons in the draft in Xavier Legette, Jonathon Brooks, and Ja'Tavion Sanders.

With Hubbard and Miles Sanders returning to the backfield, and a line that could be significantly improved over last year's injury-ravaged group, Young knows that running the ball will be a significant part of that identity.

"I think we're an attacking offense," Young said. "An offense that wants to do whatever the defense gives, but we want to make sure that we can run the ball. We're going to — coach has said that a ton, that's what we talked about — we know we're going to establish the run game, and we're going to play off of that."

Changing faces and new identities aren't limited to the offense. Even though defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero and his staff returned intact, the personnel definitely did not.

The Panthers said goodbye to known commodities Brian Burns, Frankie Luvu, Donte Jackson, Jeremy Chinn, Yetur Gross-Matos, and others in the spring, and in their place came a raft of new faces.

Many of them played for Evero elsewhere, either with the Rams or Broncos, so while guys such as A'Shawn Robinson, Josey Jewell, Jordan Fuller and Nick Scott are new to the Panthers, they speak this language.

"Honestly, man, this team came together pretty fast," veteran linebacker Shaq Thompson said. "There are a lot of guys on the defensive side. There are a lot of guys who have played in this defense before. So it's amazing for them to just come over and translate their terminology they had, whether it was the Rams or the Broncos. So that's a blessing.

"So, everything's been great, you know what I mean?"

Again, that's not something that you could take for granted, considering the level of changes. But as with Canales and Young and the offense, there was a smile on Thompson's face as he talked about the spring.

The Panthers have the benefit of low (external) expectations, and no one is trying to claim this process is close to being complete.

But for where they are today, as they head into summer vacation, there was definitely a theme.

"Honestly, there's a lot of good energy in the building," Thompson said. "I mean, you walk in, people talking to you, speaking to you, I'm not saying like it wasn't like that, but it's just you could just feel the energy and the presence of everybody. Everybody says what's up to everybody, everybody having conversations with different people. It's not just defense and defense, . . .

"That's how you build a team; that's how you build chemistry and connections."

View photos of the Panthers' mandatory minicamp on Wednesday.

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