Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule reaches back to Baylor recruiting roots with rookie class

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule and cornerbacks coach Evan Cooper adopted the #BFast slogan for their 2018 recruiting class at Baylor University.

It helped them land speedsters like Kalon Barnes, Tyquan Thornton, JT Woods, Jackson Gleason and Craig Williams, known for their accomplishments in high school track in addition to football.

When Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said he was going to draft players with "unique" skills and abilities on the third day of the draft, when the talent pool is thinner, it matched perfectly the philosophy that Rhule used to turn around Baylor -- particularly defensively.

“We realized pretty early we weren’t going to beat the likes of Texas and Oklahoma in recruiting,’’ said Rhule, as the Panthers completed a three-day rookie camp, reflecting on his time at Baylor. “So we were going to find the biggest, fastest, most explosive guys we could, and then guys like [defensive coordinator] Phil Snow would teach them the game.’’

Fitterer got three third-day players who personified #BFast: Fourth-round pick Brandon Smith, a linebacker out of Penn State, sixth-round pick Amare Barno, an edge rusher out of Virginia Tech, and seventh-round cornerback Kalon "Boogie" Barnes, who was part of that 2018 #BFast recruiting class.

Barno and Barnes, in particular, fit the slogan.

Barno ran a 4.36-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine -- the fastest mark for a defensive lineman since 2003. Barnes posted a 4.23 40 -- that was the second fastest in combine history for any position, a hundredth of a second off wide receiver John Ross' 4.22 run in 2017.

Smith didn’t set any records, but his 5.2-second 40 put him in the 91 percentile for linebackers this season.

“Once you get to the fourth, fifth, sixth rounds you try to find guys that have a unique skill and unique ability you can utilize,’’ Rhule said.

J.R. Niklos, the director of Acceleration Sports Performance in Chicago and a former NFL fullback, agreed.

“It’s the safest way to go,’’ he said. “I’m going to get somebody faster than my opponent and now teach them how to be a football player.’’

Niklos knows speed, as he was a 6-foot-3, 248-pound fullback who ran the 40 in 4.48 seconds coming out of Western Illinois in 2002. In 2005, former St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz called him the fastest fullback in the NFL.

Niklos played with a lot of fast players with the Rams (2002-05), including Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Tory Holt, who were part of “The Greatest Show on Turf.’’

“We get these opportunities because it’s a fast game,’’ Niklos said of fast players. “I showed up at Oakland once for a tryout and there are 200 kids there. I run the 40 [4.5] and they pull me straight from the workout to sign me.’’

There are no guarantees Smith, Barno and Barnes will make it just because they are fast, but speed puts them in position to have a chance after college careers that weren’t overly productive.

“We brought Boogie here not because I coached him [at Baylor], but because he could fly,’’ said Rhule, who left Baylor for Carolina 2020.

Rhule wasn’t any more surprised Barnes was the fastest player at the combine than he was that fellow Baylor players Thornton (Round 2, New England Patriots) was the fastest wide receiver (4.28 40) and Woods (Round 3, Los Angeles Chargers) the second-fastest safety (4.36).

He had to recruit against track programs to get them, particularly Barnes, who was offered a six-figure deal by Adidas to run track when he was 16. Barnes actually ran track in addition to football one year for Baylor after entering the program as a wide receiver and being switched to corner.

Rhule recalled telling cornerbacks coach Cooper to limit his speedster to a couple of repetitions in a spring scrimmage because Barnes had to run the 100 meters later that day, but Cooper forgot and worked him hard.

“Kalon showers, changes, walks across the river to the track and then runs like a 10.43 [100 meters],’’ Rhule said.

Barnes ultimately settled on football because it was his dream to play in the NFL, just as it was for the other multi-sport stars Rhule recruited.

“Most people say that I was a track guy that plays football,’’ Barnes said. “I say I’m a football guy that’s just really fast that ran track. I have football skills.’’

So does Barno, who had 10 sacks in two seasons at Virginia Tech, 3.5 his last season, and Smith, who Scouts Inc.'s Steve Muench said "flies around the field and has outstanding speed" but "hasn't reached his potential in coverage."

It’s up to the Panthers to hone those skills and build a complete player. While doing so, the speed will help them on special teams.

“Overall, a high level of unique athleticism is what some of these guys have,’’ defensive run game coordinator Al Holcomb said. “When you combine speed with their length and size that adds more value to it.’’

But make no mistake, speed gives them an edge.

“If you are fast you have that much more room for error,’’ said Niklos, who trains athletes to improve their speed and use it efficiently. “If I’m slower guy I have to be perfect.’’

Speed is a big reason edge rusher Brian Burns (4.53 40) developed into a Pro Bowl player under Snow last season even though he was drafted by the previous staff. Speed is why Jeremy Chinn (4.45 40) was selected in the second round in 2020 despite the uncertainty of whether he was a safety or linebacker.

#BFast wasn't just Rhule’s college philosophy.

“Our mindset is to get guys in here that are big, fast, athletic, rangy, find the right positions for them,’’ Rhule said. “It might be a tall receiver, it might be a red zone threat ... or it might be guys like Amare and those guys who are big, fast, explosive and can run.’’