CHARLOTTE — Entering his ninth pro season, Panthers linebacker Tahir Whitehead knows a thing or two about the game he's been playing for most of his life.
"I would say I've got my Ph.D. in the sport, you know?" Whitehead said with a laugh.
He gave that response to a question about potential issues with tackling in the 2020 season since training camp is limited, plus there won't be any preseason games this year. So, Whitehead said, players will have to rely on their many years of training.
"The game is the game. If you have the body mechanics and everything down pat, you practice your technique, you make sure you come to balance, your feet aren't crossed over all over the place, and your eyes are where they need to be, I think you'll make off well," he said.
Whitehead came to the Panthers knowing head coach Matt Rhule from their shared time at Temple. When the linebacker was a student-athlete, Rhule was the offensive coordinator. Whitehead says he sees the same man with the same energy, who spreads a sense of team building from the top-down.
"(When) the players are doing conditioning, it's like, 'Look, if you're willing and you're able, the coaches should go out there and join in and get that conditioning in with the fellas,'" Whitehead said. "At the end of the day, we all need to be active. So he encourages that player-coach relationship and that competitive nature from top to bottom."
But getting to know teammates has been different in this current reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. Particularly as the defensive signal-caller, Whitehead has to get a feel for communicating with every member of the unit. In that vein, Whitehead has enjoyed the extended ramp-up period in camp.
"It's beneficial to everyone in the organization for the simple fact that we've been away from the game for months since the end of the season," Whitehead said. "You need to get your football legs back under you. And although, yeah, you've been training, you've been working with your personal trainer, whatever you've been doing to try to get ready for this, you can't get ready for football without playing football. There's no way around it. That's the only way you can get into football shape is by actually going out there and playing football."
During this early part of training camp, Whitehead has noticed a lot of one-to-one coaching and individual work. He's also appreciated how detailed coaches have been with their instruction. And as one of the defensive leaders, Whitehead thinks it's essential not just to guide rookies, but also keep them engaged by seeking their opinion.
"I'm open-minded enough to take pointers from them. I'm always eager to learn from others," he said. "So I'll ask them questions (like), 'Hey, what did you think about that rep?' Just to make them feel comfortable to speak on certain things and not just kind of let guys make mistakes or see something wrong and be like, 'Oh, well I think that's the way that's supposed to happen.
"I leave the floor open. I don't care if this is year nine or a rookie. One of my old head coaches, Jim Caldwell, used to say, 'A good idea has no rank.' So at the end of the day, don't get caught up in if you're a 10-year vet or if you're a rookie coming in: Everybody's got something to say. Everyone has good thoughts. You've just got to feed off each other."
Though he's a nine-year veteran, Whitehead feels there's still more to learn. To that end, he's enjoyed his conversations with Luke Kuechly, who joined Carolina's scouting department this spring following his retirement. Rookie safety Jeremy Chinn also referenced benefitting from talking with Kuechly this week. But Whitehead has the unique challenge of being the man to replace Kuechly on the Panthers' defense.
"I still take advantage of the fact that Luke is in the building. I'm not prideful in any way, shape or form, or egotistical (to be) like, 'Oh, I'm not going to talk to him just because he was here and everyone loved him.' No — I love the way Luke played," Whitehead said. "Respect and more power to him because of the fact that he played the game at a high level for a long time. We came in in the same year, and I've always admired the way he played the game from afar, the big plays, the energy he played with."
So far, Whitehead and Kuechly's conversations have mainly been on the practice field. But Whitehead is looking forward to eventually joining one of Kuechly's famed film sessions.
"When he's on the field, I'll ask him what he thought about certain things, what he's looking at when dissecting runs or passes," Whitehead said. "I'd be a fool not to take advantage of the fact that he's still around."
With a four-month-old son at home, Whitehead is currently sequestering himself at the team hotel to keep his family safe. But he feels comfortable with the protocols the NFL has implemented, especially after getting into Bank of America Stadium and seeing what preventative measures the Panthers have done as a franchise.
"For me, it was when I came in and I realized, OK, we don't necessarily have to be all up on each other like the days of old where you're right there — forget six feet, probably six inches from the next person," Whitehead said. "When I came in and realized everyone pretty much had their own setup, you can be in your own world if you want to except for on the practice field where everyone's running around and getting after it."
That's where those football instincts and training come in when Whitehead and the rest of the Panthers are between the white lines. Even in a season as different as this one is sure to be, "Dr." Whitehead can rely on his Ph.D. in football.
View photos from Thursday's practice as the team worked in helmets and shells.