CHARLOTTE - It often takes time for a football player to develop a cohesive relationship with a new position coach.
That isn't the case for Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith and wide receivers coach Fred Graves.
Graves was wide receivers coach throughout Smith's playing days at the University of Utah, the beginning of a relationship that's continued through the years and that's become even closer now that they're back in the same locker room.
"I've known Coach Graves for a long time, and he's kind of been a father figure to me," Smith said. "I've always had a great relationship with him, but at the same time he's always shot me straight. He calls it how it is, no matter who it is.
"He's blunt. He's straightforward. He's fun."
Because of Smith, Graves had been to Charlotte a couple of times prior to joining the Panthers coaching staff. Graves stayed at Smith's house when Carolina hosted the Dallas Cowboys in the 2003 NFL Wildcard Game, and Graves came to town in 2009 to help Smith celebrate his 30th birthday.
Graves also had a previous relationship with Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross, who played at Utah as well.
Graves knew Smith had pro potential during their days at Utah, but no one could have predicted the scope of the four-time Pro Bowler's success.
"I didn't have a clue he'd be an All-Pro, but I thought he could play at this level and really surprise some people, because some people just thought he was too small," Graves said of the 5-9 Smith, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2001 as a kick returner. "I knew he could play in the NFL, but it was about him being disciplined and going out and getting it. He had definitely showed he could do it as a return guy, and then it didn't really surprise me because I knew Steve's attitude and his work ethic."
Fans appreciate everything that Smith has done, but above all they want to know what he will do coming off his least productive season as a starter outside of 2004, when a suffered a season-ending injury in the opener.
"Steve is as talented as he's ever been," Graves said, "and he's still got a lot left in the tank."
Graves spent nearly two decades (1982-2000) coaching at Utah – his alma mater – but he's been a wide receivers coach in the NFL ever since, most recently with the Tennessee Titans. He's also been with the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions, spending 2004 in Cleveland with Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.
"We were very familiar with each other," Graves said. "Then when I met with Coach (Ron) Rivera, I was very impressed - a guy who knows what he's doing and knows what he wants, and a guy who treats coaches very well.
"I like Charlotte and I like how the organization is handled. It's a good situation."