New guy in camp quickly thrown into leadership role

SPARTANBURG -- After what seemed to be an ordinary play in practice, Carolina Panthers safeties coach Mike Gillhamer called Chris Harris back over for a moment of instruction.

Hand gestures were made, directions given, and apparently, corrections were made. Then they both walked away laughing. Maybe it was just another of those plays that Harris is making at high speeds, whether they're right or not.

The Panthers' new leader of the secondary -- that's true even though he's been here less than a week -- joked Wednesday that he's very much still learning his way around here, and that some mistakes are going to be made. He just wants to be as decisive as possible, because that's what the team needs.

"I'm trying to get more vocal now," Harris said. "Even if I make a wrong call, as long as we all play that wrong call, we'll be good. I'm trying to get to where I'm very vocal out there."

It's an unusual situation, but very little's been normal about the Panthers' safety position all year.

They were planning on Mike Minter's farewell tour, and the addition of a high draft pick. Neither worked out, so they were scrambling for help the first week of camp, sending next year's fifth-round pick to Chicago for one of their leftovers, who walked in the door the most accomplished safety on his new team.

Harris acknowledged it was a little odd, to be thrown into the starting lineup four days after arriving, but said he feels confident he's catching on quickly enough to lead the remade unit.

"Yeah, I was with the twos my first day here without even seeing a playbook," he said with a laugh. " I was pretty much learning on the fly. Now, I feel pretty comfortable, just getting my feet wet, making some plays and getting comfortable with the defense. I'm ready to go."

When he arrived here, he said he thought the Panthers' defensive system was similar to what he was running in Chicago. That turned out to be a case of not knowing what he didn't know, as his eyes went wide when asked about that.

"I don't think there are too many similarities now after going through the playbook, from Chicago to here," Harris said. "It's a little more complex to what we did out in Chicago. I like this defense. It's a good defense, and it puts you in position to make plays.

"The safety is pretty much like the captain back there in the secondary. If something goes wrong, the finger is getting pointed at the safety. The safety has to make all the checks in the defense, so that's something I've got to keep fine tuning to get up to par on all the checks."

Coach John Fox said he was impressed with the speed Harris has shown learning, and said he's not noticed if the new guy was messing up.

"I think the fact that he has started in this league and knows what the NFL is all about, the schedules, the playbooks, everything, he's a student of the game," Fox said. "We threw him out there, and he hasn't stuck out, which is a good thing."

The best thing for the Panthers might be that they were able to make their decision early. As much as they loved him, having Minter there occasionally and not being sure how much he could offer muddled an already confusing situation. And as Minter himself said before he retired Tuesday, the key for the team was getting young players more reps so they'd be ready for the time he was gone, regardless of how soon it came.

Now they know Harris is there at strong safety and the other side's being manned by Deke Cooper for now, and probably Nate Salley later. Seventh-round rookie C.J. Wilson has shown flashes, but is far from ready. It's not a perfect situation, but at least they can plan.

"It wasn't a burden at all," Fox said of the uncertainty caused by Minter's status. "We communicate a lot, and we're aware of the things we need and don't need. That didn't mess us up by any stretch. We wanted to honor Mike and what he was going to be capable of. This game takes its toll on you, so I feel good about where we're moving forward."

The fact he's replacing a local legend's not lost on Harris, either. He said he had a chance to sit down with Minter before he left, and said the 10-year starter had similar advice for him as other players, whom he challenged to become the standard-bearers for the team.

"I know the type of player he is, and I totally respect his game," Harris said. "Those are some huge shoes to fill. You can't replace a Mike Minter. After watching him play, he can't be replaced. But I plan on coming in and doing my best and offering this team everything I have and continue to make plays. Me and Mike got to talk a little bit, and he let me know I needed to step it up in the secondary with him being gone. He was just telling me I've got to be the leader out there and make all the calls. You can't be meek, you've got to be very vocal in this defense.

"I don't feel any pressure at all. As long as I keep doing what I did in Chicago, come with that same attitude, nasty attitude and wanting to hit somebody, I'll be all right."

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