Panthers roundup: Brown on tight end’s growth, Wake Forest alum excited about fresh start

Panthers offensive coordinator Thomas Brown wants his play-calling legacy to come down to one word: “winning.”

“The only thing that matters is winning,” Brown said about his play-calling debut in Week 8. “Focus is on that. I don’t, obviously, 100% control that at all. But my goal is to put our players in the best spot to have success and game day is about them. Preparing them the right way throughout the week and giving them the opportunity to play with no fear.”

Brown, who inherited offensive play-calling from head coach Frank Reich last week, will get the opportunity to set the tone for a so-far-struggling unit against the Houston Texans (3-3) Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

The 37-year-old coordinator knows that in order to have an impactful offense against Houston, the Panthers (0-6) need to avoid turnovers.

“I think it always starts first, week in and week out, with taking care of the football,” Brown said. “The number one way you can put yourself in a bad spot in this league and lose football games is losing the turnover battle.”

With Carolina’s playmakers struggling to find consistency in both phases of their offensive attack, the Panthers are putting an emphasis on their technical approach. Part of that process involves highlighting versatility in the team’s receiver-heavy attack.

Blocking is a paramount for skill players within Brown’s system.

“It’s the old saying, ‘No block, no rock,’ so that kind of goes for everybody involved,” Brown said. “I think when it comes to our total commitment, everything starting up front and building off the run, from a play-pass standpoint leading into our drop-back game, and also our movements and keepers off that, it’s very important when you’re playing 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers), to be able to create some 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) runs by using wide receivers at the blocking point, instead of having to bring a bigger body onto the grass.

“There’s always exceptions to the rule, but for the most part, it’s always that golden rule of having to earn that (playmaking) right first.”

Panthers OC names Tommy Tremble as improved player

With Brown putting an importance on blocking, tight end Tommy Tremble could have an opportunity to shine under the new play-caller.

While Tremble is known as a strong blocker at the position, his playmaking ability flashed in the Week 6 loss to the Miami Dolphins, as he caught a pass and hurdled a defender for a 21-yard gain.

Along with what Thomas displayed against Miami, Brown — who inherited several offensive players this offseason — says Tremble has made strides in his game over the past few months.

“I would say one thing about Tommy is he’s probably emerged as one of the guys that’s probably made up the most ground since I first got here, as far as what he can provide for us offensively,” Brown said. “You talked about what he can do in the run game, and he’s violent at the point of contact, doing a great job of having tight elbows, tight thumbs, getting his second step in the ground, all the coaching points we’re making in the tight end room. But he can become a matchup problem (as a receiver).

“A guy that can run, has good body control, ball skills down the field, so it’s more about just trying to find more ways to get him involved in the game, continue to build him up from a positivity standpoint and let him keep proving it, day in and day out.”

Through six games, Tremble has played just 29% of the offense snaps. He has caught just four passes for 41 yards and a touchdown, but his playmaking output could start to pick up with fellow tight ends Ian Thomas and Giovanni Ricci on injured reserve.

Starting tight end Hayden Hurst has become a bit of am afterthought after a strong Week 1 performance in Atlanta, but Tremble is optimistic that the position as a group will see a boost in opportunities in the coming weeks.

“I feel like together — as a group — me, Hayden, Stephen Sullivan, we’re just trying to do our best with what we can,” Tremble said. “And I feel like together, we’re pushing each other every day to make sure we get our assignment and just really try to excel while we can. And so, we’re really just excited for these next few weeks. I think it’s going to be a good few weeks for the tight ends.”

Wake Forest alum looking for repeat success in Carolina

Luiji Vilain played 14 special teams snaps for the Minnesota Vikings in their 22-17 win over the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night. When he woke up Tuesday morning, the outside linebacker received a call from his agent about the Panthers wanting to sign him off the Minnesota practice squad.

Vilain didn’t have to think hard about the decision. So, less than 24 hours after his season debut with the Vikings, Vilain headed to Charlotte.

“Couldn’t be happier,” Vilain said. “Great situation for me as far as the defensive scheme and the coaches. Everybody has welcomed me with open arms, so this is a great place.”

Vilain, an Ottawa, Ontario, native, moved to Virginia as a junior to play high school football in the United States.

After a standout career at Episcopal High School, Vilain earned a scholarship from the University of Michigan. During his time with the Wolverines, Vilain played sparingly as a reserve defensive lineman. When it came time to get his graduate degree, he headed to the Carolinas, transferring to Wake Forest for a one-off breakout campaign.

In his lone season with the Demon Deacons, Vilain produced 22 tackles (10 for losses), nine sacks and two forced fumbles. He was selected in the third round of the Canadian Football League (CFL) draft in 2022, but decided to try his luck in the NFL as an undrafted rookie with the Vikings.

After four total games over two seasons with the Vikings, Vilain is looking forward to a new opportunity with the Panthers. He hopes his return to North Carolina brings on comparable success to his stint at Wake Forest.

“I just came from a 3-4 (defense), and the year before, we ran something even more similar to this system,” Vilain said. “I feel like I’m an outside linebacker by nature, even though I can play 4-3 or whatever they need me to play, but I’m definitely comfortable dropping (in coverage), playing the run, pass rushing — that’s all the things that come with being an elite outside linebacker and that’s what I want to be.”

Vilain, listed as 6-foot-4 and 252 pounds, has been away from his Canadian home since he was a teenager. The football nomad believes his many travels have prepared him to come into the Panthers locker room and hit the ground running.

“Ever since high school, I’ve been living away from home, been traveling — so I’m used to picking up and being somewhere else,” Vilain said. “So that part is kind of easier for me, as far as being away from my family, being away from friends and stuff like that. The goal is the goal, so I’m ready to work.”

Vilain considers the Carolinas to be one of his many home bases. He was also appreciative of the shout out from Wake Forest on social media when he inked his deal with the Panthers.

“That’s love,” Vilain said. “It’s always been love with Wake Forest.”

Panthers’ Thursday injury status report

Did Not Participate: WR/RB Laviska Shenault (ankle), S Vonn Bell (quadriceps), OT Taylor Moton (rest/knee)

Limited: LB Frankie Luvu (hip), S Xavier Woods (hamstring), G Austin Corbett (knee), OLB Brian Burns (elbow)

Full: RB Miles Sanders (shoulder), G Chandler Zavala (neck), G Calvin Throckmorton (calf), TE Stephen Sullivan (illness)

* Wide receiver Adam Thielen and outside linebacker Justin Houston also returned from veteran rest days.

Quick hits

Thursday marked the 30th anniversary of the NFL granting a team to the Carolinas via expansion. The Panthers were the league’s 29th franchise at the time.

The Panthers placed defensive back Jeremy Chinn (quadriceps) and pass rusher Yetur Gross-Matos (hamstring) on injured reserve on Tuesday. The two defenders were important to the defense’s sub-package system. With both sidelined, defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero and his staff will need to be creative when it comes to replacements.

“We’re always evaluating the personnel each week,” Evero said. “We’re always trying to find the best combination of guys to get out there to play. Obviously, with Yetur — big hit — but again, opportunity for other people, and we’ll see who steps up. But it’s a constant thing, and you know, we don’t always want to wait for the bye week to make those adjustments or make the self-scout adjustments. We’re always evaluating what we’re doing, and what we’re putting on tape, what other people are seeing, and so we’re ready to go.”

Evero declined to name his replacement for Gross-Matos in his sub-package role. He later said all of the outside linebackers, possibly even Luvu, could operate in Gross-Matos’ role.

Evero has scouted Texans rookie quarterback CJ Stroud this week. He gave the Texans’ staff credit for calling plays to Stroud’s strengths on offense.

“The guy is a heck of a player,” Evero said. “He’s a natural thrower, he’s got the presence and the command in the pocket, he’s got the stature to play the position, obviously, and so he’s done a lot of really, really good things so far. I think the coaching staff has done an excellent job in terms of how they’re utilizing him, how they are utilizing the guys around him, and so, it’s going to be a great challenge for us.”

Backup running back Raheem Blackshear was a healthy scratch for four of the team’s first six games. Brown, though, thinks Blackshear has the ability to flash on the field:

“The great thing about Raheem is he’s been ready from Day 1. Did a great job in the offseason. Obviously, going back to last year, when I first I got here, just watching tape on all of our players — from a O-line, quarterback, receiver, running back standpoint (and) tight ends — he’s provided kind of instant energy and spark, had great acceleration through the hole, but also kind of gives you the opportunity to kind of get out in space and run routes and catch the ball well. So, excited about it for his opportunities.”

Rookie linebacker Claudin Cherelus was picked up off waivers from the New York Jets following final cuts. While he was inactive in Week 1, he’s settled into a consistent role within the special teams unit over the past five games.

Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor is pleased with the rookie’s progress so far:

“I think he’s a young player that’s getting better. I mean, I think if you really think about it, is this going be his sixth game? And I see a player that’s getting better, but I also keep it in the context of this is maybe game seven for him. And I know there’s going to be some mistakes, but I’m OKokay with that. He’s a smart, intelligent kid. He works hard — he studies a lot of film. He’s strong, he can run. He’s a player that I expect that we can grow and win with and I’m glad he’s here. That was a great get by our front office.”

Third-round pick DJ Johnson has found a home on special teams. The linebacker’s physicality has been a welcomed presence, according to Tabor:

“He’s strong, he’s physical. He can run. I say that he has heavy hands — and what I mean by that is when he puts his paws on you, you can actually feel the person. And I like his aggression, and the thing that I think I’ve seen him grow from, since we drafted him to now, is he’s figuring it out on special teams. And is he there yet? No, but he’s getting there, and I have a lot of confidence in him, so it’s been a fun process to watch.”