Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera's defensive philosophy is a good fit for former Oklahoma defensive end Frank Alexander.
The 2012 Associated Press Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Alexander had an up-and-down rookie season. Similar to his early days at OU, Alexander experienced invaluable lessons.
“In college you play 13 games. When we got halfway through, we already had played that many games (including four preseason games). And we still had eight games left,” Alexander said in a phone interview with The Oklahoman. “I hit the wall, but it's something that should help me this year.”
A key contributor on a deep, talented Carolina defensive line, Alexander is the Panthers' third defensive end behind starters Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson. The knock on Alexander during his rookie season was he was inconsistent.
The first four games Alexander recorded 2.5 sacks. The fourth-round pick didn't compile another sack the remainder of the season. He recorded 18 tackles but had a six-game, midseason stretch in which he recorded only two tackles in six games.
“It's like coming to college your freshman year,” Alexander said. “It takes some getting used to learning your way through everything. It's a lot easier the second year because you know what to expect.”
Alexander appeared in all 16 games. Overcoming the midseason lull, he finished strong, recording 12 of his 18 quarterback pressures the final seven games.
“I learned the things I need to work on, things like getting off blocks better on running plays and using my hands more,” Alexander said. “At this level things happen so fast you really have to process things faster. But if you work on little things it can lead to big things.”
Alexander has the passion. In fact, his passion sometimes lands him in trouble.
In Carolina's season opener two weeks ago against Seattle, Alexander was ejected in the second quarter after he threw punches at Seahawks offensive tackle Breno Giacomini.
Alexander confessed he got caught up in the “heat of the moment.” He regretted retaliating to trench-war tactics. He was fined $15,750 but was allowed to play in Carolina's second game.
But that type of fiery demeanor could benefit Alexander in Rivera's system. A member of the famed 1985 Chicago Bears defense, Rivera developed an attacking style as the Bears defensive coordinator.
“I played on a 3-4 team (in Buffalo) where it wasn't always like that,” defensive tackle Dwan Edwards told the Charlotte Observer. “Here, we're trying to penetrate and make plays.”
Alexander made a ton of plays at OU his senior year but was viewed as an underachiever his first three seasons.
He suffered a stab wound in his right arm in 2008 while protecting friends when armed intruders crashed a postgame OU victory party. The injury sidelined the Baton Rouge product for five games.
The next two years there were limited highlights. His sophomore year, Alexander played behind established veterans Auston English and Jeremy Beal. His junior season, a high ankle sprain suffered during two-a-days hampered him much of the year.
His senior year, Alexander was dominant. He led the Big 12 with 8.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. He also recorded 54 tackles and batted down six passes.
Two years later, Alexander is carving out a reserve role behind Hardy and Johnson, who combined for 23.5 sacks last season. With players like Alexander coming off the bench, Carolina's D-line was selected the No. 1 unit on the team by the Charlotte Observer.
“They do a really good job with their rotation,” Buffalo coach Doug Marrone told the Charlotte Observer. “You have to spend a lot of (practice) time making sure they don't take over a game. That front seven probably is under the radar, but people are starting to take notice.”
As for the big picture, Carolina is off to a hard-luck 0-2 start.
The Panthers led Seattle 7-6 in the opener but lost 12-7. Last week, Buffalo scored with: 02 left to rally for a 24-23 win, the only time the Bills led other than a 3-0 early lead.
“We just need everybody to work together, be on the same page, believe in each other,” Alexander said. “If we come together as a team we can accomplish a lot.”
How soon the Panthers evolve into a viable playoff contender in large part revolves around quarterback Cam Newton, the first player in 60 years to win the Heisman Trophy, win the national championship and be the first overall pick of the draft.
Newton dazzled as a rookie, throwing for 4,051 yards and 21 touchdowns and running for 706 yards and 14 TDs. He compiled another solid season a year ago. But after averaging around 300 yards total offense his first two seasons Newton is averaging only 200 the first two games.
“He's works extremely hard every day and is a great leader,” Alexander said. “He's got some experience now. He knows what it takes to win games. Cam wants to win as much as anybody. Those are the type of players you want to surround yourself with.”
Carolina is trying to avoid a second consecutive disastrous start. A year ago, the Panthers started 1-6 and were 2-8 the week before Thanksgiving. Carolina, though, won five of its final six, highlighted by a season-ending four-game winning streak to finish 7-9.
“It showed everyone on this team what we're capable of,” Alexander said. “Everyone here believes in what we're doing. We made a lot of steps in the offseason. We just have to put it all together.”