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Matt Rhule gets 'juice' flowing for Panthers with high-energy practices

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tahir Whitehead was heading into his senior year at Temple in 2011 when then-offensive coordinator Matt Rhule stepped on the practice field for warm-ups wearing a helmet and shoulder pads and challenging players in the "bull in the ring" drill.

"I remember looking at him, like, 'Hey, this guy is crazy,'" the Carolina Panthers middle linebacker recalled. "I forget which guy he was going up against, but I would say he was probably about twice Matt's size. Matt says he didn't care. We've got to show you guys how to get going."

There was no such craziness on Sunday as the media got its first glimpse of a Rhule NFL practice. On Monday, players donned pads for the first time in a preseason like none other due to the coronavirus pandemic. Even with some padded protection, Rhule won't be seeking out any contact.

"These guys are way too fast and explosive," Rhule said. "Not a chance."

What isn't different from Rhule's college days is the pace and tone of practice. It's the same philosophy he used in turning around Temple and Baylor. It's taken from what he learned as a walk-on linebacker at Penn State under Joe Paterno and with the New York Giants in 2012 as an assistant to Tom Coughlin.

It's different from what the Panthers did the past nine seasons under Ron Rivera, who typically eased his way into team drills and often gave veterans or star players days off to rest. Rhule doesn't even use a horn to signal the end of one segment and the start of another. He uses a sire, as a coach shouts orders through a bullhorn, creating an immediate sense of urgency, as if the stadium were on fire.

Practice begins the same way. Rhule starts with team drills instead of individual periods after stretching. It's always to blaring music -- mostly rap with a blend of rock. The pace is fast for those participating and watching.

"Fast. Fast," said wide receiver Robby Anderson, who played for Rhule at Temple in 2013 and 2015. "No wasted time. Not too much standing around. No lollygagging.

"[You're always] doing something to get better. It's not a hangout spot."

Backup quarterback P.J. Walker, another former Temple player under Rhule, says the early team drills set the tone for the whole practice.

"We call it 'juice' around here," said Walker, who came to Carolina via the XFL. "Everybody is picking up the juice, picking up the energy level."

It's not a system every NFL player wants. One who chose not to be identified expressed concern when Rhule was hired in January because players -- particularly older veterans trying to save their bodies for a 16-game season -- might resist being pushed so hard.

Perhaps that's why Rhule and the Panthers moved on from a lot of older veterans and have a roster with only six of 80 players age 30 or older. More than half (48) are 25 or younger with something to prove.

"We've got a bunch of guys in this group that don't want to be coddled," strong safety Juston Burris said. "We want to win. We have a coach we believe in. He has a formula and we're following behind that."

The formula hasn't been adjusted just because Rhule is coaching professionals instead of college kids. The adjustments have come from those around Rhule, such as offensive coordinator Joe Brady, who came to Carolina after helping LSU win the national title with a fast-paced scheme.

"If you came to our Baylor practice, it would have been 10 times faster because we weren't in the huddle," Rhule said with a laugh. "Sometimes Joe kind of laughs at me because I get a little antsy, 'Get the play in and go! Get the play in and go!

"I don't want practice to ever feel like drudgery. Let's rock! Let's go!”

Rhule likes loud music with team drills to promote energy and create the distraction players face on game days.

And when the music stops, hold on.

"He will call you out right then and he will stop practice and tell you off," said former Baylor tight end Ish Wainright, who is hoping to soon resume his basketball career in Europe. "He'll stop you in the middle of a play. He'll cuss you out right there. I've had that multiple times because I used to mess up."

Rhule stopped team drills twice on Sunday in the bubble during a third-down conversion session. Once he had the entire offense drop and do 10 pushups.

"It's really organic," Rhule said. "Not preplanned."

The music stopped a few more times during team drills when practice moved outside. It wasn't clear who caused the stoppage. It could have been a standout player or the third-team cornerback.

"He cussed out Denzel Mims so often," Wainright said of Baylor's star wide receiver, who was a second-round pick by the New York Jets in April. "Five-star recruit. He doesn't care."

What Rhule cares about is detail and getting the most out of players the way Paterno did for him. It's part of what he calls "the process." If players don't buy into it, they're not likely to be around long.

Rhule surrounds himself with coaches who buy into his high-energy process as well. At Baylor and Temple, they would stretch and run with players, as many on the Carolina staff with a strong college flavor did Sunday.

"I tell coaches all the time, 'Let's make sure we are the energy we want to see from the players," Rhule said.

Wainright, who in 2018 went to rookie camp with Buffalo, said Rhule's practices were much harder than what he went through with the Bills.

"There would be days when we started off practice with two-minute drills," he recalled. "And we're going two minutes nonstop. And if he doesn't like it, we'll start the whole two minutes over.

"I loved it. There was never a dull moment in practice."

Rhule can cram two-and-a-half hours of typical drills into one hour because of the pace and tone. He can get away with the toughness because players see him as "a real guy," as right tackle Taylor Moton said.

"That's always been the type of guy he is, and that's why I've always respected him," Whitehead said. "What he asks and requests from you is all you can give, all your energy and everything and go 100 miles [per hour] on the field.

"And he does the exact same thing."

Rhule's just not ready to dive in with pads and a helmet anymore.

"Those days are long gone," Rhule said.