Throughout the Carolina Panthers’ four weeks of organized team activities and minicamp, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott would walk or jog past reporters, waving or saying hello before he’d duck into practice.
But no one ever interviewed McDermott, who says he prefers flying under the radar even as he’s built the Panthers into a perennial top-10 defense. Carolina, Seattle and San Francisco are the only three teams to finish in the top 10 defensively the past three seasons.
But if the Panthers continue their defensive dominance and keep going to the playoffs, McDermott – who interviewed with Washington after the 2013 season – will have more teams calling about head coaching vacancies.
During a recent 20-minute interview, McDermott said his focus remains on the task at hand. Among other topics, McDermott discussed the role of rookie linebacker Shaq Thompson, the leadership of Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly and a couple of players he says could be X factors for the defense this season.
Q. You worked Charles Johnson at right defensive end a lot during the spring. Is that going to stick or do you feel he’s still better suited on the left side?
A. It’s something we’re looking at. I think you’ve always got to work on a contingency plan, and certainly the production off the left side the last couple years has been very strong. The spring is a time to work on some things. We wanted to look at that. We’ll see how it continues to develop.
You’d like to be able to do some things, move him around. But you also don’t want to take him out of positions of strength either. That left side has been real strong for him the last couple of years.
Q. There was a lot of talk nationally when you drafted Shaq Thompson that he was a tweener. Were there conversations on your end about what was Shaq’s best position?
A. You always go through that. I know Dave (Gettleman) and Ron (Rivera) talk a lot about fit. That’s part of the fit for a player. Where do you play him?
I’ve been in the league long enough to know sometimes a player falls to you and you say, pick him. Yeah, well, have you gone through the makeup? Have you gone through the whole (process) and answered all those tough questions? Well, you’ve got him. Now what are you going to do with him?
That’s always an important part of all those conversations leading up to the draft.
Q. Ron made no secret about using Shaq in blitz packages. What did you see on film to make you think he’d be a good fit in the blitz scheme?
A. In the back seven, we’re always looking for guys that can do that, whether it’s off the edge or up the middle and be a factor when they blitz. He did some of that at Washington. Having said all that you’re still never sure, even as you go through the process, what you’ve got until you get him in town and get a chance to be around him on a daily basis. That’s what we started to do.
Obviously, it was a little bit late because of Shaq’s quarter system at Washington. But once he got into town we started to get ourselves acclimated to him, and he was getting himself acclimated to us. So that process will continue.
We’re really just at the beginning stages.
Q. Charles Tillman’s another newcomer. Do you feel having Charles outside at corner and Bené Benwikere inside lined up against the slot is the best use of your personnel in the secondary?
A. Yeah, I do. Part of being a good coach is putting people in a position to be successful. With Charles, we’ve got a guy that’s played a lot of football. He’s been successful. He’s got some size to him that we feel like can help us.
You look at the division, right down the road in Atlanta, and Tampa, more and more you find these receivers have some vertical size to them. So that certainly helps us in that way. And then Bené, with what he’s shown in terms of tracking the ball, certainly helped as a rookie the last how many games he was out there for. We feel like we’ve got some options at this point. ...
Really defense is a game of matchups. If we get a guy in the slot that’s quick, Bené could match up inside for us. And let’s not forget about Colin Jones and what he brings to the table.
Q. Defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short looked to be playing together more this spring with the first team than in the past. Do you feel like this could be a breakout season for Short?
A. I’ve really been proud of the way both of them have approached the offseason. They know it’s a big year for them. And that’s the next step in their development.
They know that and they’ve worked hard in this offseason, and we expect them to continue to work hard over the break and come back and do good things for us. They’re two fine, young football players that have done some good things for us.
I’m a big believer in the front. A lot of times good defenses are built around the front. We’ve got to be stout up front, be able to stop the run and then be able to affect the passer with the front four.
Q. We’re 12 minutes into this and I’ve yet to ask you about Luke Kuechly. He’s mentioned that he’d like to get a little better at finishing blitzes. Is that an area where he can improve?
A. For those of us that know Luke, he’s always got something he’s working on. That’s what makes him great. He’s always working on some part of his game, either on the field or off the field.
There’s things he’s mentioned that he wants to work on and we’re right there with him. (Linebackers coach) Al (Holcomb) has been working with him on some of that. I’ve worked on some of it with him as well. ...
Look, what more could you ask for up to this point in terms of what he’s done? He’s a pleasure to be around. He’s a great leader. And he and Thomas (Davis) work extremely well together.
Q. Are there a couple of guys defensively you look at as X factors?
A. As you look at the defensive front, you mention Frank (Alexander), you mention Wes (Horton), Kony (Ealy) and Mario (Addison). We’re still looking at that second defensive end position and looking hard at it because that’s an important position for us.
Then you want to see what some of these defensive backs can do, in particular the corners. We’ve got some new faces around back there. See what they can do. So that’ll be interesting for us, whether it’s Chris Houston, who we just signed.
But there’s some guys you say, OK, this position has got to step up and do X for us to really get over the hump.
Having said all that, we’ve always emphasized playing great team defense. So we need to get 11 hats to the defense at all times and play good Panthers-style defense.
Q. You interviewed with Washington two offseasons ago. After another top-10 season for your defense and an NFC South title, were you surprised you didn’t get a couple more calls last winter?
A. Nah. That stuff, it goes in waves. I’m so dialed in on this team and this season.
Believe it or not, after about four or five days of being off, I’m already itching to get going here. I’m excited for the season. I’m excited for the group of guys we have on defense. It’s a terrific group of guys on the whole team.
They’re high-character, young men that just make it a joy to be around them every day. I’ll say the same thing with the coaching staff. It’s a great group of men in our organization, and I’m extremely happy to be a part of it.
I can’t wait to get training camp started.
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