Purnell steps into special teams coordinator role

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CHARLOTTE – Russ Purnell was simply wishing a friend good luck. The Panthers travel to Jacksonville to face the Jaguars in the regular season opener, and Purnell, who lives in the Jacksonville area, texted Carolina special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven to let him know he'd be pulling for him.

"I texted him," Purnell said, "and he called me right back."

Purnell won't just be rooting for DeHaven, he'll be coaching for him. On Tuesday, it was announced that DeHaven will take a leave of absence for medical reasons. Purnell will serve as his season-long replacement.

"He said he had a health issue and he might need some time to get well," Purnell said. "So we talked about it for a bit, and I got the blessing from my wife.

"The next week, he said (general manager) Dave Gettleman and (head coach) Ron Rivera wanted to talk with me."

Purnell, a 26-year NFL coaching veteran – most recently with the Jaguars in 2011, was retired a few weeks ago. Now, he's the special teams coordinator for the Panthers.

"I accepted an offer to come down here and help out a friend," Purnell said, "and to be a part of a great organization."

This is a difficult situation for everyone involved, and Purnell admits he may not have been comfortable replacing another man for another team.

But when DeHaven recommended him for this job, he was compelled.

"I'm very flattered he recommended me," Purnell said. "Some places I might not have been comfortable doing this. I might have had second thoughts. But Bruce had fantastic things to say about the staff here and the players. He was very positive, and I believed him when he said I would enjoy the experience."

Purnell and DeHaven go way back. When Purnell was coaching at Edison High School in southern California (1973-81), DeHaven, who was coaching at Kansas University (1979-81), successfully recruited some of his players.

"I got to know Bruce, and we stayed in touch," Purnell said. "We ran into each other at coaches' conventions. Then all of the sudden we were both in the NFL. We'd always meet up at the Scouting Combine and at the Senior Bowl. We kept track of each other."

This winter, while DeHaven was settling into his new role as special teams coordinator after two years as an assistant for the Panthers, Purnell was retired, but he wasn't completely detached from football.

Coaching in the United Football League in 2012 was his last full-time role, but in 2015 he served as an assistant coach at the East-West Shrine Game – a college football all-star game in January.

"It's in your blood," Purnell said. "I'm excited to get back in the mode of coaching."

Purnell's first task is familiarizing himself with the roster and getting up to speed with the Panthers' offseason program.

"I'm going through Bruce's tapes," Purnell said. "He left a plan for the rookie minicamp and OTAs. I'm going through that and I'm getting to know the players.

"A bunch of them have introduced themselves, and it seems like a great group of specialists between (long snapper) J.J. Jansen, (punter) J.J. Jansen and (kicker) Graham Gano."

DeHaven will be tending to his health at home in Buffalo, but he plans to stay connected and involved throughout the 2015 season.

"We'll talk, and he's going to be able to get a look at video," Purnell said. "He certainly wants to stay involved and I certainly hope he does. His input will be invaluable."

Purnell will do the best he can. He'll work from DeHaven's office and sit at DeHaven's desk. He'll reinforce the core special teams philosophies they share. He'll take pride in doing it for his friend.

"We are very similar in our approach to the game," Purnell said. "He said he feels comfortable with me keeping his seat warm."

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