Jeremy Chinn has a pre-practice ritual.
He hasn't done it for long. In fact, it only started in July when the Panthers began training camp. But every day after Chinn walks on the practice fields, he goes to the four-man sled. He gets down in a stance, takes a first step, and slams his hands into the pad.
He makes his way one by one through all four pads, striking each with intensity.
At first, Chinn did this to improve his hands. It was a point of emphasis from defensive run game coordinator Al Holcomb.
"Coming from college to the NFL, hands are so important - striking first, getting off blocks, all that stuff," Chinn said Thursday. "Back in college, I could rely on my athleticism just getting around people so much. But now, moving to the next step, shooting my hands became so important.
"So, I just started doing that every single day before practice."
Now this seemingly benign habit has taken on a new meaning.
"At this point, if I don't hit the sled, I'm like, 'Man, I don't feel like I'm ready for practice,'" Chinn said. "It's like tying your shoes when you put your shoes on."
This is how Chinn prepares himself to practice the game he loves. And he truly loves football - it's his defining characteristic. Teammates, along with current and former coaches, describe Chinn as a serious football guy. Part of the reason why is he finds serenity within the white lines.
"Really, it's therapeutic," he said. "Whatever's going on in life, the moment I step on the football field, none of it even matters anymore. All your problems go away. You can just be yourself, play football, and everything makes sense."
Chinn's passion appears to rub off on everyone around him. He plays the game with such intensity that even as a 22-year-old rookie, he's become the defense's tone-setter.
"I always tell him, you're a rookie and all, but at the end of the day, you're a leader on this team," linebacker Tahir Whitehead said. "We all ask ourselves, are you playing with the same intent or the same tempo as 21's playing? And then if the answer is no, then it's like, you're shortchanging yourself. You're shortchanging the team, so turn it up."
It helps that Chinn's on-field performance has started to spur conversation around Defensive Rookie of the Year. Chinn currently leads all rookies with 48 total tackles. He's also recorded three passes defensed, an interception, a tackle for loss, and a quarterback hit.
He's accomplished all this after being a late second-round pick out of Southern Illinois. That's an FCS school, competing in the same conference that's recently produced Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, Texans running back David Johnson, and Jaguars running back James Robinson.
Hailing from a smaller program or not, Chinn takes such pride in his effort and performance that it doesn't matter if he's a rookie. He likes being a tone-setter.
"I have a very high standard for how I play on the field, how I'm moving around," Chinn said. "The fact that guys see that, too, and they try to match the energy, it's definitely encouraging."
This mindset is nothing new. Chinn's head coach at Southern Illinois, Nick Hill, couldn't be on the field for early workouts during the summer Chinn entered the program as a freshman. But he remembers well what the upperclassmen told him about SIU's newest defensive back in 2016.
"They were just like, 'This kid, he's going to play as a true freshman,'" Hill said. "We knew pretty much right off the bat that he was going to be a player."
Chinn missed the first three games of his freshman year due to injury, but he made a clear impact once he hit the field. He finished that season with 51 total tackles with three interceptions and five passes defensed, setting himself up for an even larger role as a sophomore - both on and off the field.
"I was a captain as a sophomore, so that early leadership role is something that I've always had to just adjust to," Chinn said. "That's when I realized, it's not just about me making sure I'm doing my thing, that I'm playing at a certain level. But I've also got to make sure the guys around me are playing at a certain level. I had to hold them to the same standard that I hold myself to."
Hill saw Chinn take that role seriously and thinks Chinn is an easy player for others to follow. But he also backs it up.
"You can talk the talk and all of that, but at the end of the day, they want to see you go out there and do it, and Jeremy was always that guy," Hill said. "He played with a lot of energy, played with a lot of passion."
Chinn's off-field habits fueled his on-field performance at SIU. There were times when Hill and other members of his staff basically had to kick Chinn out of the football facility because he wouldn't stop watching film.
"Yeah, that happened a couple times," Chinn admitted with a laugh. "I would just be in one of the coaches meeting rooms, I'd have all the lights off, kind of almost hiding back there. And then it'd be late at night or something, and they'd tell me to go home, get out of there, go get some rest or something.
"But I could just watch it all day, really."
Jason Petrino benefited from Chinn's studiousness. When Petrino began his tenure as Southern Illinois' defensive coordinator/safeties coach for the 2019 season, Chinn asked for a playbook to get familiar with the new system.
"Every kid says that," Petrino said. "And then it's like, OK, what'd you do what that playbook I gave you? 'I swear I looked at it!'
"Chinn looked at it, studied it, and he was prepared for it. That's the thing that really jumped out at me my first time being around him."
Chinn didn't see it as that big of a deal.
"The easiest way to get coached and to connect with a coach and to be able to communicate is having the same terminology," Chinn said. "I think that's why me and him were able to click quickly."
Still, it took Petrino some time to figure out how to best scheme for Chinn. He played the first four games in 2019 before plantar fasciitis sidelined him for a pair of contests. That's when Petrino changed things up. Chinn went from recording four total tackles in each of his previous three games to making nine in a critical victory over Youngstown State.
"I noticed I wasn't doing a good enough job of putting him in positions where he could be an impactful type of player," Petrino said. "So as he came back from injury, I kind of said, we're going to build our third-down packages around you, to kind of put you where the quarterback is trying to throw the ball - that's where I want you to be."
But Petrino and Hill both won't ever forget a play that Chinn made that got negated after a review. Early in the third quarter on third-and-12, Petrino sent Chinn on a safety blitz. Lined up about eight yards off the line of scrimmage, Chinn had a long way to go to get through the gap left between the center and guard. But when he hit the quarterback, he jarred the ball loose for a strip-sack. He then recovered the loose ball on the ground, completing the play.
But upon review, the call was overturned. That still bothers Chinn's former coaches.
"I don't know what they saw - that's a strip-sack all day," Petrino said.
With Chinn in his fourth year at the program, Hill didn't need much convincing about Chinn's talent. But plays like that did confirm to him that the safety could be successful as a pro.
"It wasn't just some flashy plays that caught some NFL scouts, and they said, 'Well, he's big and athletic, but we're going to have to get him in,'" Hill said. "It's like, he's got pretty much every box checked that you'd want in a really good pro."
After the Panthers traded up to select Chinn at No. 64 overall, he began spending a lot of time working with Holcomb to help in the transition from college to the NFL. There was one thing Chinn wanted Holcomb to know when he arrived: Don't take it easy on me.
"That was great," Holcomb said. "He allows you to coach him, and he takes all the coaching in. He wants to be dynamic and great."
Though Chinn didn't start working with the coaches in person until late July, they could tell his high football IQ from the offseason program's virtual meetings. Based on what they knew about Chinn from the pre-draft process, the Panthers figured Chinn could step in and play a significant role. But they couldn't say exactly what they had in the rookie out of an FCS school until he got on the field.
"We knew early on just his mindset and the things that we were trying to talk about in terms of being a versatile player, and teaching him those things. I thought he picked it up fairly quick. His retention level was very good for being this early in the stage," Holcomb said. "When we started to see him out there on the grass and actually get real reps, then we felt like, wow, he can do some things, and he's versatile."
"He's still got a long way to go, but right now, he's progressing nicely, and he's started off in good fashion."
Though the jump seems particularly significant from the FCS' Missouri Valley Conference to the NFL, Chinn didn't feel like he had to adjust more than any other rookie. The coaches have illustrated their confidence through playing time. Chinn's been on the field for 97.2 percent of Carolina's defensive snaps through six games. Only safety Tre Boston has played more, at 99.7 percent.
"I think probably when I was in college, probably my sophomore year of college, I looked at the NFL, and I watched NFL guys, and I saw that I could make a difference then, I just needed the opportunity," Chinn said. "Now that I'm here, obviously there's a learning curve from playing college to playing in the NFL. But I always felt like I had what it took."
Chinn's skillset was as clear as ever during a three-play sequence in Week 6 against the Bears. Early in the third quarter, Chinn blitzed and rushed a Nick Foles throw on second down. Then he batted a pass away from tight end Jimmy Graham on third down to force a punt. And after running back Mike Davis' lost fumble, Chinn immediately intercepted Foles' errant pass to get the offense the ball back.
"I even said it when I was watching the tape myself on Sunday night into Monday, 'Wow, he was just hot,'" Holcomb said.
Especially during the regular season, Chinn likes to be all about ball, constantly studying to get better. But he does occasionally relax to avoid burnout. He loves listening to all kinds of music, with Lil Durk, Major Nine, and Summer Walker on his most recent playlist.
But Chinn also places a high value on his relationships with his coaches - current and former. He often texts back and forth with Petrino and Hill. Petrino mentioned he gave Chinn grief recently for a play he didn't quite make.
"I said, 'Hey man, if you're going to blitz, you can't get cut - you know that.' And after the game, he said, "Yeah, that one hurt. I felt that one,'" Petrino relayed with a laugh.
Hill and Petrino care just as much about their former player, each saying they watch Panthers games to see what Chinn does every week. Petrino's Twitter feed is full of retweets of Chinn's highlights. Hill usually watches Carolina's matchups with his Panthers 21 jersey on and plans to make a trip to Charlotte to catch a game at Bank of America Stadium later this season.
"I think those are lifelong relationships with them," Chinn said. "They put in so much time for me, not just the team but for me as an individual as well. And I put in time with them and the team, too. So just to have that relationship, it's so much bigger than football."
But the game matters so much to him, too. That's why he sticks out so much to Carolina's veterans.
"The guy plays 110 miles per hour each and every play," said Boston, who called Chinn "The Real Deal Holyfield."
"He has what you call those young, fresh legs and he's able to use them. He's not afraid to hit. He can do just about everything. Shout out to his parents cause he's a freak of nature. He's one of those guys who's built like a safety, slash, linebacker, slash, can do it all."
Added cornerback Donte Jackson:
"He's a guy that pops off the film. I don't think you have to ask a guy who's in the locker room with him to see that, I'm sure you can see that. I'm sure that people who don't even play football want to play football at the level that Jeremy Chinn plays with. That's not even talking about the large amount of talent he possesses. It's just his motor, man, his energy. Like Tahir said, it makes you want to go harder. You see that on film, you see that guy run past you, it kind of makes you think about it, like, 'Damn, am I really going that hard?' So he definitely brings out the best in a lot of the guys on defense, and a lot of guys look to see how 21's going."
Chinn is an ascending rookie on a positive trajectory. But while Holcomb feels like the rookie safety has limitless potential, there's a lot of work left to fulfill it.
"There's a lot of little things, details and techniques that he still needs to improve upon and master and get better at," Holcomb said. "But with his mindset and his physical talent, he can definitely develop into one of the more dynamic players in our league on defense with time."
For now, Chinn feels like he's living out a dream. In some ways, his life feels like a movie to him, just getting to play in the NFL on a weekly basis. But it's not just the games. He loves to practice, too, coming out every day to get better.
"You only play 16 days throughout the year. So if you don't love the process, then you're probably not enjoying it very much," Chinn said. "I love the grind and what comes with it."
That's why when Chinn's cleats hit the practice field grass, they move him toward that four-man sled. He's got to set the tone, center his mind, body, and spirit to get better each day playing the game he loves so much.
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