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Carolina Panthers

Robert Hunt was brought here to create change, without changing

Robert Hunt

CHARLOTTE — You can look at any tape and see that Robert Hunt is big and athletic.

But to know the difference between someone who can be a quality player and someone who can change things, sometimes you have to see how he adapts to change.

So perhaps the best sign for the Panthers, after investing heavily in the Dolphins guard in the opening hours of free agency, came two years into his career at Louisiana-Lafayette when Hunt experienced his first coaching change, and went through his first meeting with new offensive line coach Rob Sale.

Sale came into Lafayette with head coach Billy Napier, but he had worked at Alabama from 2007-2011, so he had been with future NFL linemen like DJ Fluker, Andre Smith, and Chance Warmack and knew what one looked like. Coupled with his experience playing offensive line for Nick Saban at LSU, and coaching at Georgia and Sale had a clear vision for what he expected.

As Sale explained the change in language they'd be using, he saw Hunt's shoulders sag; he saw a look on his face that made it clear Hunt wasn't thrilled with having to adapt.

"When you get a new position coach at a college, you know, and you're giving him, here's the new calls, here's what we're doing from Day 1," Sale recalled. "And I saw Robert's face like, 'Oh, crap, I've got to learn something new.' When the meeting was over, I said 'Robert, stay.'

"Then I shut the door, and I tore him up a new one."

Sale explained that if he made it to the NFL it would be called something else; if you change teams, that's what happens. The good ones have to be able to adapt.

"And that was the beautiful thing," Sale said. "He responded, he looked at me and he said 'Yes sir,' and he kind of got it, and knew that he was wrong in his body language. And that was the only blip on the radar I ever had.

"We laugh about it because our relationship got to where it is now. I don't get off the phone with him without saying, 'I love you, Robert,' and he says, 'I love you too, coach Sale.' He knew I would do anything for him, and he would do anything for me, whatever we needed. But, you know, you develop it over time, you know what I mean?"

during the Gators' game against the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday, September 30, 2023 at Kroger Field in Lexington, Ky. / UAA Communications photo by Maddie Washburn

Hunt has shown he can quickly adapt, from being a two-star recruit with little in the way of college interest from a 1A high school in Texas to being a potential first-round pick. Then he went from playing tackle capably in the NFL to being one of the best guards in the game for one of the best offenses in the league.

Now, he's coming here to help build something new.

When you sign a player like Hunt early in free agency, it's a bit of a statement of intent. You're not just signing a very good guard; you're signing one of the best. And that means doing it fast and making it clear you want him, so it's expensive.

But the Panthers had no qualms about giving Hunt that kind of contract last week because they think he can be a player who can create a change here.

"I want to be a part of something great," Hunt said on his first visit to Bank of America Stadium. "And hopefully, that's something that we can do here and change this thing around, man."

To land Hunt in the first hours of the negotiating period, they had to throw a five-year, $100 million contract his way, making him the third-highest-paid guard in the league. But they're getting something for the money which they need.

After plowing through so many guards last year, they wanted an upgrade, and the numbers suggest they have one.

Robert Hunt

According to Pro Football Focus, Hunt allowed one sack last year, and just five pressures in 360 pass-blocking snaps. That 1.4 percent rate was the lowest of any qualifying guard last season. After quarterback Bryce Young was sacked 62 times last year (the sixth-most in NFL history), that was something the Panthers needed to fix, and fast.

So they offered life-changing money to Hunt, though he said the dollar figures weren't as impactful as the early interest, the Panthers throwing down the marker and making him a priority.

"Those big numbers, if I'm being honest, they really haven't even hit me honestly," Hunt said. "Like I haven't really thought about it, put much thought into it. Just because of who I am and where I come from, I feel like what I already had on my rookie deal was plenty for me. You know what I mean?

"Because I've seen the other side, so that was good for me. This is just a blessing. I'm happy for it. But I think this is just to show how much I've done, how much I've worked, and how much I think I'm worth. You know what I mean? Like, I think I am one of the best guards in the league."

When he thinks about that journey, from a barely noticed recruit to one of the highest-paid players in the NFL, it's a little much to comprehend.

Robert Hunt at Louisiana-Lafayette

He grew up in the small Texas town of Wiergate, and the family moved around a bit when he was young (evacuating after Hurricane Rita and again when their house burned down). When he reached high school, he moved in with an aunt and started playing sports at Burkeville High.

"Friday Night Lights" makes people think everything is bigger in Texas, and at the top schools, that is undoubtedly true.

But not at Burkeville.

Sale, who now works with Napier at the University of Florida, laughed and recalled looking back at Hunt's recruiting "highlights" when he got to Lafayette.

"It's a bunch of small little kids in the film, and it's a four-foot-high chain link fence around it, and you're like, what are you watching?" Sale said. "But then you see this big ol' man that has potential that can move and change directions. And those are the guys that you look for. I would take Robert Hunt here right now, off that high school film every day and twice on Sunday at the University of Florida."

But the Floridas of the world never called when Hunt was being recruited. He went to Lafayette's camp, and there was some interest there, but he was lost to the rest of the college football world. But then, when a late offer from Houston came in, Hunt decided to stick with his early commitment and build from the Sun Belt up.

"It's been a beautiful journey, man," Hunt said. "I don't think I would change it, you know, I don't think I would change any of it. From going from a 1A school with 13 football players every Friday, sometimes we may have 11 or 12, to winning two games in my high school career to going to Lafayette, Louisiana, which is not a Power Five (school).

"To being here, man, it's been an honor. It's been a blessing. I think I've done it the right way. I've played the game the right way."

Robert Hunt

The speed of Hunt's ascent was dizzying. He ended up a high second-round pick of the Dolphins in 2020, 39th overall after a final season sports hernia kept him from finishing the year or participating in the Senior Bowl.

But Sale recalled seeing that first-round talent, and beyond that, the humility to continue to work as attention increased.

Sale talked about Hunt's background and thinks it's part of the reason he's achieved this much already.

Hunt came to Lafayette without a driver's license, his first car when he got to the NFL was a Kia (and his now fiancée did most of the driving), but he admitted that he's considering buying a Tesla Cybertruck (he's tried getting on the waiting list three times). Otherwise, he still seems the same to those who have known him.

"You know, it's life-changing money, but he's the type of guy that's not going to change his work ethic, who he is, and how he does his daily approach," Sale said. "Just the type of guy you're getting, he's a stud and I love him. He has a good family, but they didn't have a whole lot of resources."

Now, Hunt has resources, and the Panthers hope they're tapping into one as well.

After trading so much for Young last year, they want to protect him now, so Hunt and guard Damien Lewis are here to help provide that now.

Tua Tagovailoa, Robert Hunt

Hunt has been a part of top offenses before (and has blocked for a not-large Alabama quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa) and knows that even when surrounded with top talent, a certain resilience is required.

He recalled last October's game in Miami when the Panthers raced out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. The Dolphins, owners of the league's top-ranked offense, did not blink.

"We kind of came out, we knew we were playing a little slow, we were playing flat," Hunt said. "And we had good people in that room and on that team to, like, hey, let's come on now, we'll wake up a little bit, and that's kind of what we did.

"And we just woke up and just handled business."

That 14-0 deficit quickly evaporated, and the Dolphins went onto a 42-21 win.

"I was like, OK, they came to play," Hunt said. "They got everybody's attention. We were like, all right, we got to come on with it."

Robert Hunt

The hope is that Hunt can help bring that kind of turnaround here. It might not be as rapid as the way the Dolphins could stack points, but his commitment to that daily work is what the Panthers will need as they build something.

After he slouched his way out of that first meeting, Hunt became a leader at Lafayette (on a line that also included future Rams guard Kevin Dotson), the first big steps in the journey that led him here. Sale would tell any scouts that came to Lafayette the same thing, having seen what the SEC looked like, that Hunt had everything those guys had, if not more.

The talent, anyone could see. The way he worked was something that Sale was often the only one in position to witness.

"He just let you coach him; you know, you could coach him hard," Sale said. "It was yes sir, no sir, and let him pour into you. . . .

"His effort, his toughness, and him wanting to be great was there, and that 'coach me, coach' mentality. Coach, get me better."

It clearly worked, and that's what the Panthers are now hoping he can bring here, which is why they were willing to invest.


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