CHARLOTTE — Playing football during a pandemic is an unprecedented situation, but there are some parallels to draw upon from the past.
At least that's how Panthers left tackle Russell Okung sees the situation. Heading into his 11th season, he's one of just three players on the roster — including kicker Graham Gano and long snapper JJ Jansen — who experienced the 2011 lockout.
"I know what it's like to not have OTAs, not have minicamp, and then all of a sudden be expected to show up for camp and be ready to go," Okung said. "I think we've proved that we can go out there and put a good product on the field."
Okung was a Seahawks' first-round pick in 2010 and was entering his second pro season when the lockout occurred. One lesson from back then is players need time to ramp up training to prevent serious ailments. The league saw an increase in Achilles and ACL injuries early in the 2011 season, which is why the NFL Players' Association continued to push for a considerable strength and conditioning period to begin training camps this year.
Okung also has concerns about COVID-19, much like anyone who understands the situation's seriousness. But he believes there will be a good plan to keep players, coaches, and staff as safe as possible.
Plus, Okung has added supplements like vitamin A, vitamin B, and zinc to his diet to give himself a boost. He's drinking a lot of water. He's also spending a lot of time in the sun, calling it "one of our most incredible healers." And he's eating as clean as possible, trying to avoid any GMO products.
"Stuff like that is really important for us to pay attention to," Okung said. "I've just got to be honest with you, man, I feel great."
Okung's meticulousness about what he puts into his body falls right in line with how offensive line coach Pat Meyer described the left tackle as a player. Meyer was Okung's position coach for the last three seasons with the Chargers, helping Okung earn the second Pro Bowl berth of his career in 2017.
"He's got a book of 50 different guys that have pass rushed him before. He keeps a book on each of these guys (that says), here's his No. 1 move, here's what he likes, here's his go-to move. He's got a catalog of all that stuff," Meyer said. "Just the approach to the game in terms of trying to take care of your body, and then your approach to every game and every week preparing like he does, I think that's a huge, huge thing."
As for those lessons from the 2011 lockout, one significant difference in 2020 is players learned the playbook during this spring's virtual meetings. That didn't happen nine years ago, and it should have a positive effect on implementing Carolina's new systems during training camp.
"Most teams I've been on, we've probably installed the playbook at least two to three times prior to us starting the season. And we've done it twice already," Okung said. "I imagine we'll do it another two times when we get to camp — or at least one time. So we're right on pace for that."
Okung also credited head coach Matt Rhule for starting to establish a distinct culture, despite having to communicate over a computer or tablet. Okung called culture "one of the most fundamental components" to any successful team, and noted Rhule spent a lot of time talking about it.
"I think that's something that's a high priority of his," Okung said.
Culture and connectedness are of particular importance along the offensive line. If that unit is not together, the offense as a whole can't function properly. Okung has played with center Matt Paradis and guard Michael Schofield before and knows them well. Now, Okung has to establish relationships with his younger teammates.
"A lot of the stuff is on a personal level. I won't understand you until I know who you are and what things are important to you," Okung said. "I think I've had a chance to spend some time with a lot of those guys, at least virtually. I know some of them have kids and people they care about. So I think honestly, the football stuff will take care of itself."
But what does Okung see as the most important lessons from 2011 that can aid the Panthers in 2020? Building continuity and camaraderie will be challenging, but that's also the case for the other 31 teams.
"I think our best bet is to, one, make sure we're ready and mentally prepared," Okung said. "Physically, I think we've all been challenging ourselves to get as close to shape as possible — and some of us know each other across the offensive line, so we know how to prepare. We know what it takes there. Then it becomes a matter of sticking to getting together and being prepared to go."
Okung previously played for Chargers (2017-19), Broncos (2016) and Seahawks (2010-15).