Al Holcomb entered 2007 unsure if he even wanted to coach in the NFL: He had been coaching college football for more than 10 years and loved it.
Then he spent a summer as an intern with the New York Jets.
“Right there and then I knew this is what I want to do,” Holcomb said. “I didn’t want to leave.”
Six years later, Holcomb is back at an NFL training camp, this time as the Carolina Panthers linebackers coach – his first year as a position coach at the professional level.
Holcomb is in charge of one of the Panthers’ most talented groups, and he must teach several players who have been in the league longer than he.
Head coach Ron Rivera said Holcomb is handling the new responsibility well.
“Al has done a nice job,” Rivera said. “The biggest thing Al has done is that he’s come in and he’s established his presence in his room. He’s taken care of his guys, he’s got his guys going and doing things they’re supposed to.
“I love the way he handles Luke (Kuechly), and I love the way he’s handled the other linebackers in the room.”
The story of how Holcomb ended up in Charlotte goes back two decades, to his time at West Virginia University. After playing running back since he was 8, Holcomb walked on to the Mountaineers at that position.
He quickly realized, however, that his future was not in playing. Hoping to continue his time in the sport, Holcomb began spending more time with the WVU coaches, who took him under their wing.
After graduating, Holcomb stuck with the Mountaineers, volunteering as an administrative assistant while he got a graduate degree in athletic coaching education.
Holcomb immediately put what he learned to use, working as a linebacker coach, assistant track coach and physical education instructor at Colby College in 1997. He spent the next 10 years bouncing between small schools.
When Holcomb spent a summer with the Jets as part of the NFL’s Minority Internship program in 2007, he was coaching the defensive line at Lafayette, an FCS program.
He made NFL connections in New York and got his opportunity with the pros by joining the New York Giants in 2009.
Four years later, then-Giants General Manager Dave Gettleman took the Panthers GM job.
Within a month of Gettleman’s January hiring, Rivera and the new GM invited Holcomb to interview for the open LB coach spot. It was Holcomb’s first time interviewing for a position coach spot, but he must have handled it well; Rivera called him the next morning and offered him the job.
Holcomb said his biggest concern about accepting the offer was pulling his 11-year-old son from school midway through the year and taking his family south. But his son adjusted quickly, finishing the school year in Charlotte.
“He’s made the transition really well,” Holcomb said. “He’s got a ton of a Panthers gear. Every time I go home he’s got a Panthers hat on, some kind of shirt, shorts, he’s got it all, so we’re on board. The whole family is on board.”
Holcomb also had to hit the books after taking the job. In the offseason, he spent six weeks in a hotel while meeting with the rest of the coaching staff to prepare for the upcoming season. Each night, Holcomb would return to his hotel room, open his playbook and start memorizing schemes and techniques.
Now, Holcomb is the teacher.
Linebacker Chase Blackburn commended Holcomb’s ability to describe and explain, and the mechanical pencil Holcomb keeps behind his ear until long after practice adds to his scholarly image.
Rivera has noticed how all the linebackers turn to Holcomb for advice.
“You see them asking questions of him and going to him directly,” Rivera said. “One thing you always worry about when you put a new face in the room is that guys will go to somebody else that they have more familiarity with, and that hasn’t happened.”
In addition to technical questions, several Panthers have asked Holcomb about the Super Bowl ring he earned with the Giants.
“I keep it at a safe place and I’m very proud of it, and every now and then I go in there and take a look at it,” Holcomb said. “I smile when I see it.”
Feldman: 704-358-5384, @JacobFeldman4