CHARLOTTE – Assistant head coach Steve Wilks was the man in charge of the Panthers' final OTA practice Thursday as head coach Ron Rivera attended his daughter's college graduation.
"It's a special time for him," Wilks said. "He has a lot of trust in what we're doing as a coaching staff and most importantly trust in these players to get the job done."
Wilks tried to make practice as normal as possible and explained what he wanted from the players during a team meeting prior to the start of practice.
"We talked about two things in the team meeting today – tempo and execution," Wilks said. "I thought the tempo was great. We were a little inconsistent with our execution, but the energy was there."
Wilks, whose primary role is coaching the Carolina secondary, was able to get a unique perspective stepping in for Rivera.
"It's a little different not being able to coach your own guys but I got to see the whole picture and tried to stay on top of everything," Wilks said.
And Wilks has seen encouraging signs of progress as the Panthers brace for the three-day minicamp next week, which serves as a final tune-up for training camp.
"We're definitely not where we want to be, but you can see the progress in all three phases," Wilks said. "We emphasized staying green – the meaning behind that being still growing. I don't care how long you've been in the league, there is always something to learn and an area to improve. That's the challenge, and that's what we expect."
Below are some observations from Thursday's practice.
Red zone takeaway
The standout play of the day came from defensive back Colin Jones in the red zone during the two-minute drill. Jones intercepted quarterback Cam Newton at the goal line and sprinted about 60 yards down the sideline before Newton ran him down.
Had it been a game, Jones is pretty confident he would have scored.
"I saw it pretty well off his hands and thought I could make the play without going to the ground," Jones said. "Fortunately I was able to have (safety) Kurt (Coleman) leading me up the field and try to get a touchdown out of it. Cam had a good angle, but I had a lead blocker, and I would have trusted Kurt to make the block."
Added Wilks: "Colin sparked the defense, got us going a little bit. He has improved tremendously over the years. You can see his development. He's making plays for us and doing an outstanding job."
Luke lends a hand
First-round draft choice Shaq Thompson is doing his best to get up to speed after missing the first eight OTAs while finishing his coursework, and he's getting help from fellow linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Kuechly spent time explaining some concepts and reads with Thompson during special teams drills. Thompson worked with the second team during team drills.
"It's tough to get here late, but what he's done so far has been great," Kuechly said. "He's eager to learn. He works hard and he's got a great attitude. That's a good start for him.
"I'll help him as much as I can. He's a quick learner. All the linebackers will get him caught up."
Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery was extremely consistent during Thursday's practice. Newton fired several passes to the veteran, who made a series of catches in traffic to move the chains during team drills.
The Panthers practiced some late-game scenarios during Thursday's sessions. The offense executed a desperation lateral sequence, and the defense worked on keeping ball carriers inbounds. Both sides also practiced the approach to a Hail Mary at half-speed.