Carolina Panthers

Can Panthers rookie Jordan Scarlett (literally) bust out of dorm room and into rotation?

Carolina Panthers-Buffalo Bills practice

The Panthers and Bills practiced together Tuesday and will again Wednesday. Carolina coach Ron Rivera on how it went.
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The Panthers and Bills practiced together Tuesday and will again Wednesday. Carolina coach Ron Rivera on how it went.

Sometimes there’s just no nice way to put it:

That sucks.

And thinking back to last Thursday’s Panthers preseason opener against the Chicago Bears, that certainly applies. Because while highly anticipated Carolina rookies like Brian Burns and Will Grier got to make their NFL debuts, not every new draftee had the same opportunity.

Instead, you want to know how fifth-round rookie running back Jordan Scarlett spent last Thursday’s game? Not on the sidelines with his peers, or even watching the game on TV in the training room. Nope. He was stuck all alone ... in his dorm room at Wofford College ... streaming the game on his cellphone.

“It sucked last week having to watch the season opener and not be with those guys,” Scarlett told the Observer Tuesday. “And I didn’t travel, so it sucked even more.”

Scarlett was nursing a sore back at the time, and treatment options in Spartanburg were superior to what he could get traveling with the team. Now healthy again, and with the Panthers hosting the Buffalo Bills on Friday at Bank of America Stadium, you betcha Scarlett is chomping at the bit.

“It’s just a little more ammo, makes me even more hungry,” he said. “I like it. I’m definitely excited to get back out there.”

The battle to backup McCaffrey

Some of that eagerness, obviously, is the opportunity to wear a professional jersey for the first time. In Scarlett’s case, there’s a bigger picture, too.

Coach Ron Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney went into this offseason wanting to find a complement for star Christian McCaffrey, and selecting Scarlett was part of the solution.

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Rookie running back Jordan Scarlett struggled catching the ball in college at Florida, but he has improved significantly this summer thanks to improved hand placement. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Now, he isn’t alone behind McCaffrey on the depth chart. He’s currently competing with returners Cameron Artis-Payne and Reggie Bonnafon for backup duties, not to mention undrafted rookie Elijah Holyfield. But through most of training camp, Scarlett has stood out as someone who could challenge for snaps subbing McCaffrey.

“We were all very pleased with how he performed to this point, and unfortunately those dings happen,” running backs coach Jake Peetz said. “He’s done a really nice job learning his assignments, understanding what he’s supposed to do and how to do it.

“Now he just needs to go out and express himself on the field.”

The appealing thing about Scarlett, especially as someone who could limit McCaffrey’s extraneous snaps, is his blend of size and speed. Although he clocked a quick 4.47 second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine in February, he’s also a bulky 210 pounds at just 5-11.

That makes him a fit for the inside runs where the team might want to spell McCaffrey.

“I’m a very physical back, I can run between the tackles very well — and Christian can, too — but he’s more of an every-down back,” Scarlett said. “I think they kind of want me to take the load off of him as far as short yardage-wise, goal line. I’m very comfortable with that.”

But really, the two things that will help Scarlett stand out are the same as any young running back: his pass protection and his catching. Scarlett still has room to grow as a blocker, but his hands have been one of the more pleasant surprises of camp.

Only it has taken some serious work to get to that point.

Hand placement? Think of a diamond

In three years at Florida, Scarlett had 15 catches — total. Some of that was because of chronic drops, and some because of the Gators’ offense. But regardless, Scarlett inherited that line on his scouting report — can’t catch — coming into his first training camp.

But Peetz, who joined the Panthers this spring after serving as an offensive analyst at Alabama in 2018, quickly unearthed the root of Scarlett’s catching woes.

“When you watched the film on him coming out ... any of his drop issues, it really looked like his hand placement was off,” Peetz said. “He was too wide with his hands. We talked about bringing your index fingers and your thumbs together, bring them up together. And [that’s] not to say you’re going to catch every ball doing that, because at some point, it’s a little bit of a confidence issue as well, right?”

So what exactly is hand placement?

“It’s basically catching every ball with a diamond — your index fingers and thumbs together,” Scarlett explained. “Put those two together and not try to bring those two [hands] together to catch it. That’s what I was doing, trying to bring it together and it always went through.

“As soon as I corrected that, I’ve seen great changes in my hands, so I’m proud of that.”

Don’t want to ‘feel like crap’

The next step in Scarlett’s progression is translating his early practice success into live-game action.

Which also means being available for live-game action.

That respect — keeping himself not just injury-free, but healthy — Scarlett said has been the toughest part of transitioning to the pro level.

“You don’t realize in college how much you actually have to take care of your body,” Scarlett said. “Eating right, making sure you’re getting in the cold tub, getting stretched — these days will pile up on you. ... In college before, you could just go home thinking, ‘I’m gonna be all right, I’m young.’ But you’re starting to get older now, so the stuff that hurts, it’s gonna hurt a little more now.”

“I’ll feel like crap, so I’m asking the nutritionists, ‘Why am I so weak out here, like as soon as I step out here?’ She’s like, you eat fried foods! [Laughs]. Man, I love sweets, I love desserts. I’ve had to change some things, and not even for the sake of my body appearance-wise.

“It’s more just, I have to be healthy. I have to feel healthy.”

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Running back Jordan Scarlett sought out Cam Newton for advice about how to take care of his body coming into the NFL. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

One person Scarlett turned to? Quarterback Cam Newton.

Newton told the rookie that going vegan helped him feel better overall and more energized. The same goes for Pro Bowl defensive lineman Gerald McCoy, who consistently has ordered food trucks for the team this summer but not eaten anything “normal” from them, Scarlett said — and although he respects his teammates’ decision, he probably won’t be following suit anytime soon.

“I don’t think I’m ready for that step,” Scarlett laughed. “I love chicken too much.”

Save the chicken and the desserts for after Friday, then. Scarlett doesn’t want to have to stream another game on his cellphone. At long last, he’s ready to prove what he’s capable of.

“It’s just doing me, man. ... Coming out here and trying to overthink things will have you making mental mistakes,” he said. “I trust in my ability and my talent to get me on this team.

“I’m more than ready.”

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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