CHARLOTTE - As a linebacker on the Chicago Bears' famed and feared defense a quarter-century ago, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera understands that an attacking defense is a winning defense.
Rivera also understands that even the best linebackers can't attack without a helping hand up front.
With that in mind, the Panthers opened and closed the third round of the NFL Draft on Friday by selecting multi-talented defensive tackles, going with fleet-footed Terrell McClain from South Florida and big-footed Sione Fua from Stanford.
"We needed a couple of space-eaters, guys that take up blocks, command doubles and let our linebackers play downhill," Rivera said. "The thing that gives you the biggest edge is to play downhill, to attack and make plays at the point of attack. I didn't feel like that was something we did well last season; the linebackers were playing sideways and backwards.
"This gives us an opportunity to get our guys attacking the line of scrimmage."
Panthers General Manager Marty Hurney and Rivera believe that both of their third-round picks can immediately boost the position group, albeit in different ways. McClain (6-2, 297) is one of the few defensive tackles in the draft class to run under 5.0 seconds in the 40-yard dash, while Fua (6-2, 308) simply ran through people during his breakout senior season at Stanford.
"McClain is very athletic and plays with a lot of energy," Hurney said. "Fua is a nose tackle whose best asset is probably as a run-stopper. In this division with the running backs we face in Michael Turner and LeGarrette Blount and with the Saints just drafting Mark Ingram, we feel that he'll come in and give us a big, powerful body."
McClain, a first-team All-Big East selection last season, had a feeling he might end up as a Panther after defensive line coach Eric Washington traveled to Florida to put him through a private workout. Now McClain will return to Bank of America Stadium, where he helped South Florida knock off Clemson in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, his final college game.
"It's a blessing just to get drafted, and then being drafted by one of the teams I was looking forward to playing with, it's truly a blessing," McClain said. "It's a great environment for football. I just can't wait to get there."
McClain played as a true freshman with the Bulls and then started all but five games over his next three seasons.
He said the Carolina coaching staff already gave him a clear indication of what they'll be looking for from him.
"Being disruptive," McClain said. "I'm going to make as big of an impact as I can. I'm going to come in and be one of the hardest workers out there.
"I want to earn everything I get. I don't want anyone to have any regrets after drafting me. As soon as I get my chance, I want to take it."
That's the same attitude being adopted by Fua, who didn't have as clear an indication that the Panthers were eyeing him. Fua met Rivera at the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine, but all along the Panthers were studying tape of him, especially from a senior season in which he excelled under a new defensive staff and helped a Cardinal team better known for offense rank 21st in the nation in total defense.
"I'm ecstatic," said Fua, a team captain in 2010 who started 31 games over the last three seasons. "Just talking with the coaches, they really want to improve the defensive front seven. With us young defensive tackles that are coming in, I think we could really help out and contribute right away.
"They're dedicated to having this team get better, and we're going to be dedicated as well."
At the end of the day, that's something Rivera saw in both McClain and Fua – the fire that he harnessed so successfully back in his playing days.
"When you look at these two young men that we drafted, the one thing that really stands out about them is their work ethic," Rivera said. "McClain is a young man that I really found intriguing. When he worked out with Eric Washington, he spent a full day with him, and he said the young man just wanted to keep working.
"Then Fua, he's a hard-working kid. There's just something about him and his mental make-up. You put the tape on and you see a big guy with a big motor."
The Panthers, after making the final pick Friday, will make the first pick Saturday at noon to open the fourth round. It's the first of five picks the team holds for the final day of the draft.