Carolina Panthers

Safeties coach doing well with patchwork unit

Carolina Panthers secondary/safeties coach Mike Gillhamer talks with safety Chris Harris during training camp.
Carolina Panthers secondary/safeties coach Mike Gillhamer talks with safety Chris Harris during training camp.

CHARLOTTE -- Everything seemed so normal back in the summer for Mike Gillhamer, who coaches the safeties for the Carolina Panthers. He had a proven veteran in Mike Minter, a promising second-year guy in Nate Salley, and some other capable parts to work with.

Now he's got early wake-up calls, black coffee and not so much time to put something together.

With Minter's sudden retirement, an early injury to Salley and the recent acquisitions of the two guys who could start at safety today against Houston, Gillhamer's job might be the least-envied on the staff.

After all, they traded for Chris Harris a week into training camp, but they brought in Marquand Manuel just over a week ago, and he could be starting this afternoon. They wanted him up and running quickly anyway, but Deke Cooper sped the process along as a late addition to the injury report last week.

"I've been going through training camp, basically," Manuel said. "What they did in four weeks, I've had four days."

And in that time, he's gotten to know Gillhamer well. When Harris came in on Aug. 3, he at least had the luxury of three weeks in Spartanburg. Still, he spent an extra 90 minutes a day with Gillhamer before special teams meetings each night, and only now seems comfortable.

"That first week was like trying to learn Spanish and speak it fluently in a week," Harris said.

Manuel's getting the crash course. He probably has spent an additional four hours per day since coming in Sept. 3, simply trying to learn what the Panthers are doing. While most players begin their day with a 7:20 a.m. meeting, Manuel and Gillhamer have been holed up for an hour by then.

"Get there at 6:30, grab a cup of coffee and let's get it done," Gillhamer said with a shrug. "We've kind of taken the approach, we have to catch up so we can do it. Now, obviously we feel Chris is caught up and can do whatever we want. If Marquand plays this week there might be a few things (he hasn't seen). But that kid has done a great job. He's studied extra. Every day he's got new questions on something.

"You go into the game, we do our deal, and if we find something's there we haven't done, we might not do it (with Manuel). But we haven't gone into the meeting room and said we have to limit this package. We're expecting them to know it and be ready to do it."

When asked when he'd feel like he was on the same page as his teammates, Manuel just smiled.

"Only God knows that," he said. "In the meantime, if I get called upon, I'm ready to play. So just from that standpoint, there's a lot of things you have to pick up on the run."

If anything, the Panthers were fortunate to acquire Harris and Manuel. Getting Harris in a trade from the Bears covered them immediately for Minter's departure, and they got Manuel when he was cut by Green Bay. When four starting safeties went down opening week, the market got thin, making the Panthers grateful they moved when they did (especially since one was Chicago's Mike Brown).

The additions weren't haphazard signings, though, as they were looking for a specific type of player. Defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac's system is more complicated than many, with more match-up responsibilities for safeties than in the Cover-2 systems like the one Harris played in Chicago. There's also more verbiage, and since that changes from team-to-team, both guys had to catch up quickly after spending offseasons speaking different dialects if not entire languages.

But if the Panthers didn't think they could handle it, they would have looked elsewhere.

"You're not going to bring in a guy who's just a missile," Trgovac said. "You're not going to get a guy, when you bring him in later in camp, if he's going to need a lot of reps or struggle with your scheme."

Trgovac and general manager Marty Hurney talked to several different sources before making the acquisitions, getting opinions from personnel types, coaches and players on the players' ability to handle the work load.

The resounding answer was a yes, with both carrying that "student of the game" tag. Harris uses the foreign language analogy often, and Manuel said, based on his experience, learning the third and fourth one's far easier than the second.

He said his eyes were opened in 2004, when he went to Seattle after spending his first two years in Cincinnati. After working under Dick LeBeau and Marvin Lewis, he found himself under the tutelage of veteran coordinator Ray Rhodes, who he referred to as "my mentor."

"He sat me down, taught me football, and taught me a whole different version of what I had known," Manuel said. "He was kind of collaborating with what Dick and Marvin taught me.

"I went from speaking Spanish to English. That's helping me now, being able to translate what they do and say. People might call things something different, but it's the same thing."

Of course, knowing what to do is one thing, being able to physically get there another.

"There's always that thing, if you're labeled smart you must not be a very good athlete; that's just the way it is," Gillhamer joked. "But we put so much of a premium on the mental side, and they have to have the athleticism, too. Those guys have it both."

Harris was known as a playmaker during his two years with the Bears, with a game-winning breakup against the Panthers in 2005 and interception in the first quarter of last year's Super Bowl, back when the game was still in doubt.

And while Manuel is the holder of a degree in criminology from Florida (and has worked on his master's in counseling) and was a four-time member of the SEC's academic honor roll, they didn't bring him in for interesting dinner conversation. He picked off a Jake Delhomme pass in the 2005 NFC Championship Game and they think he can be a presence in run support.

"Every guy in this league can run, hit, jump and tackle," Manuel said. "It's under pressure, how does that guy handle it? How fast does that guy learn? When he comes on the sideline and you tell him something, will he comprehend?

"That's just things I've learned from being in big games, pressure situations; being a guy who has played strong safety one minute, free safety the next, and nickel the next.

"You have to understand the whole defense. It's a blessing they say I'm smart. I'm OK, I just have to study like everybody else."

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