Steve Wilks brings a different kind of intensity to Panthers defense

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Steve Wilks was taking a short break between practice, lunch and meetings. His mind appeared to be spinning in a hundred different directions on what he had planned for the rest of the day.

Although he seemed relaxed, the energy churning inside the Carolina Panthers' defensive coordinator was like that of a waterfall supplying energy to a power plant.

“I’ve always said the speed of the package is determined by the speed of the leader," Wilks said.

That perfectly sums up what Wilks has brought to the Panthers' defense since replacing Sean McDermott, who was hired during the offseason as the head coach of the Buffalo Bills.

As much intensity as McDermott brought the past six seasons -- four straight years leading the Panthers to a top-10 defensive unit before the 2016 season -- Wilks takes it to another level.

“Coach Wilks, he brings a different kind of intensity to our defense," defensive tackle Star Lotulelei said. “Coach Wilks, he’s not in your face, but he’s not afraid to tell you how he feels. He’s going to tell you how it is and what he expects from you.

“It’s a different kind of atmosphere. More intense."

The overall philosophy and scheme of the defense won’t change significantly from the way McDermott ran it. Pressuring the quarterback, stopping the run and causing turnovers still are priorities.

But the way the defense is called will change, whether that’s more press coverage from the corners, fewer or more blitzes.

“Sean was a linebacker coach" prior to becoming a defensive coordinator, coach Ron Rivera said. “Steve was a defensive back coach. Because of that you’re going to notice vast differences in the way defenses will be called.

“That’s just the nature of it."

The nature of Wilks is to stay ahead of the curve. He is ridiculously detailed as far as being organized and scripting things out.

“Trying to have the foresight to see things that may come up and having the answers," Wilks said.

And then there’s that energy that players can’t help but notice, particularly during the hot days of training camp when it’s hard to maintain intensity for a two-hour practice.

“A lot of those guys, let’s be honest, they get sore and don’t want to be out there," Wilks said. “We as coaches have to pull it out of them, so I’m constantly right there trying to make sure I’m always bringing the energy."

Defensive end Wes Horton called McDermott and Wilks “unbelievable coaches."

But ... yes, there was a but.

“I just think from a style standpoint Coach Wilks brings just a little more of that in your face, like this is what we’re going to do, this is the bar that we’re setting and this is how we’re going to get it done."

That’s not a negative for McDermott. It just speaks to the overall respect players have for Wilks and why it was a no-brainer for Rivera to promote him once McDermott left.

“He just has his own way of doing things," safety Colin Jones said. “Coach McDermott did a great job, but Coach Wilks ... he’s just a great guy, people respect him. Everybody wants to play for him, and for each other."

One of the first things Wilks told coaches and players after getting the job was that this was "their defense," not his.

That’s the way Wilks was as a local hero at West Charlotte High School, where as a kid he grew up dreaming of becoming an NFL player or coach.

Brannon Jett, the running backs coach at West Charlotte and a high school teammate of Wilks, told ESPN.com in January that Wilks had the "biggest heart."

"His whole persona was, ‘Let’s go out and do it because it’s ours,'" he said.

That’s what Wilks brought to the secondary that went through more overhauls the past four years than one position coach should endure.

"It’s about defeating what’s in front of you first," Wilks said.

Wilks has a lot in front of him to work with this season. The Panthers added nine-time Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers to what already was arguably the most talented defensive front in the NFL. They added Pro Bowl safety Mike Adams to a secondary in need of more experience.

And Wilks already had arguably the league’s best starting linebacker corps in Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson.

Here’s what Wilks had to say about what he’s working with -- and against:

-- On Julius Peppers returning to the team where he began his career as the second pick of the 2002 draft: “This guy is 37 years old and he looks outstanding. His movement, his versatility, his strength ... he’s a freak of nature, man."

-- On second-year cornerback James Bradberry filling the big shoes of 2015 Pro Bowl selection Josh Norman: “James Bradberry, he doesn’t have a clue how good he can be, and sometimes that’s a good thing because he’s going to stay humble and continue to work hard. His skill set, his ceiling is so high."

-- On having to face running back/slot receiver Christian McCaffrey, Carolina’s first-round pick, every day in practice: “That young man is phenomenal. ... He’s going to make us better as a team, not just as an offense, as a team, because he’s one play away from taking it to the distance. ... As a coordinator, you’ve really got to game plan against that."

Adams said the Panthers have the tools to be the best defense in the NFL. They appear to have the carpenter capable of using those tools to get there.

“I tell you what, we have the talent and the skill set to do what we want to do and be one of the best in the league," Wilks admitted. "But time will tell."

And with that, Wilks' short break was over.