CHARLOTTE – Watch Steve Wilks on the practice field for one minute, and it's obvious that the Panthers' secondary coach and passing defense coordinator is in his element.
"We are coaches, but we're teachers first," Wilks said after dismissing the latest additions to his class at last weekend's rookie minicamp. "When you go in that classroom each and every day, you're presenting a lesson for those guys to learn."
With undrafted rookie free agents Robert Lester and Melvin White as his prized pupils, Wilks worked on what he considers an overlooked skill for the defensive back of today: the backpedal.
"DBs in college have really lost the art of backpedaling, and here we really emphasize staying square and bursting into our backpedal," Wilks explained. "The longer you can stay square, the better your transition is to breaking for the ball.
"You're trying to de-program those guys. I'm not saying what they were taught was wrong; it's just that we have a certain way of teaching our secondary with the Carolina Panthers."
A Charlotte native, Wilks will impart that knowledge on the latest generation of area football prospects when he conducts the first Steve Wilks Elite Defensive Back Academy at two locations next month. The camp, in partnership with Communities In Schools, will provide high school athletes with the kind of instruction that money usually can't buy.
"These high school kids, we're trying to give them the same foundation that we teach our guys," Wilks said. "I wish I had that opportunity growing up and going to West Charlotte High School. I've tried to be a sponge my entire life, and if these kids are locked in and focused, they're going to learn a lot."
Wilks said his Pop Warner coach helped him become the player he was and the person he is today. Wilks and his camp staff will aim to make a similar impression with the participants.
"I operate on the three Ts: teach, train and task," Wilks said. "We want to teach the guys the fundamental things we want to do, then we show them on the field during the training aspect of it. Then the task is the game."
Wilks' task going forward is to put the best secondary personnel on the field for the Panthers.
"We have good chemistry, and we have guys who are going to come in and compete," Wilks said. "The biggest thing is the level of competition we've created. (General manger) Dave Gettleman has done a great job in free agency, and during the draft process we did a great job targeting priority free agents like Melvin White and Robert Lester – guys that understand the game.
"I think we've got a pretty good group, I really do."
In addition to the acquisitions of Lester and White after the draft, the Panthers signed cornerbacks Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore and safety Mike Mitchell before the draft. They also re-signed cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.
While Charles Godfrey appears to have locked down the free safety spot, top candidates at strong safety include Lester, Mitchell and D.J. Campbell, who started the last four games of 2012 when Godfrey moved to free safety following Haruki Nakamura's season-ending groin injury.
Both cornerback spots appear to be wide-open. Here is Wilks' take on some of the contenders.
On Drayton Florence: "He brings a lot of experience and still has a lot left in the tank. The guy has performed well over the years and still has that vertical speed. We look for him to come in and be a major asset for us this year, not only on the field but also in the classroom as a mentor and leader for our younger guys."
On D.J. Moore: "D.J. is a tremendous inside player with great ball skills and good short-area quickness, and he can provide depth on the outside as well. He's definitely a playmaker, as he showed over the years with the Chicago Bears. We think he can come in and give us a boost."
On Captain Munnerlyn: "The way he played last year was a boost for us. He did some great things not only at the nickel position but also being able to get outside and start at the corner position. We expect a lot of great things from him."
On Josh Norman: "He came in as a rookie, performed well during training camp and really took a major step. As a starter, he struggled a little bit, but I know he's learned from it. He's anxious to get out there and put on the performance that he did back in training camp."
On Josh Thomas: "J.T. is a very physical and aggressive corner. I love his style of play. He made tremendous strides and really became a student of the game. He has really improved his game."