Kalil stepping up at right time as leader

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Ryan Kalil isn't what you'd call a natural leader, at least when it comes to standing in front of a group and giving rah-rah speeches. He prefers to lead more by example, to do his thing behind the scenes.

But when left tackle Jordan Gross retired after the 2013 season, the Carolina Panthers needed somebody to replace the vocal leadership he had given for much of the past 11 years.

Kalil stepped forward.

Not only that, he did it the Monday after the Panthers lost to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC divisional playoff game in Charlotte.

It wasn't a boisterous speech. It didn't have a snappy anecdote as the "Highland'' speech given by Gross before the fifth game at Minnesota to propel a 1-3 team on a streak to win eight straight and 11 of its next 12 games.

But it showed Kalil was ready to use some of that inner drive that made him a four-time Pro Bowler to lead an offensive line in need of a new leader.

"Probably the biggest thing when you lose a voice in Jordan Gross that you've had for many years, you have to establish that very quickly,'' coach Ron Rivera said on Thursday. "So [Kalil's] established himself from the get-go.

"The Monday after the loss he was up there talking to the guys about coming back ready to roll.''

Gross led not only with his words in team settings, but individually. Few knew the heartbeat of every position better because Gross took the time to get to know every player. If there was a feud or controversy brewing, he would head it off before it got out of hand.

Quarterback Cam Newton credits Gross for calming what he called the inner beast inside wide receiver Steve Smith.

Kalil won't have to deal with Smith, who was released during the offseason and is now playing in Baltimore. But he'll aim to lead much like Gross did because they share many of the same attributes. They're both easy to talk to and totally unselfish.

"He'll lead us,'' Rivera said. "He's a solid football player and he is one of the best in the league at center.''

There's no doubt about the latter. Kalil is a regular at the Pro Bowl and at 29 is reaching his prime. Third-round draft pick Trai Turner said Kalil has been a tremendous help as he goes straight from college to starting at right guard.

Kalil is a big reason there's not such a panic about the restructured offensive line. As he reminded during organized team activities (OTAs), the line has been questioned since he arrived at Carolina as a second-round draft pick out of Southern California in 2007.

In a way, Kalil has been leading all of his career. He just hasn't been outspoken.

"For us, the biggest thing is to not try to start from where we left off last year,'' Kalil said. "It’s going to be a kind of refocus and figure out where we need to improve . That’s a hard thing to try to put aside because we did these great things, because it doesn’t really matter and it doesn’t necessarily translate into the next season.

"Every year is a different team regardless of what you did the year before. So for us, it's going to be starting back at square one and seeing what we have.''

He even sounds like a leader.