Rookie turns heads

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS -

Carolina Pan­thers run­ning back Chris­tian McCaf­frey cre­ated a buzz dur­ing his first week of train­ing camp with vet­eran play­ers and coaches who raved about his ath­leti­cism and abil­ity to make peo­ple miss.

SPAR­TAN­BURG, S.C. — Chris­tian McCaf­frey re­mem­bers run­ning around his back­yard as a young boy play­ing tackle foot­ball, dodg­ing his brothers while pre­tend­ing to be Barry San­ders.

All of those moves have paid off for the Pan­thers rookie run­ning back.

McCaf­frey cre­ated quite a buzz dur­ing his first week of train­ing camp with vet­eran play­ers and coaches rav­ing about his ath­leti­cism and abil­ity to make peo­ple miss. There hasn’t been this much an­tic­i­pa­tion from fans over a Pan­thers rookie since 2011 when quar­ter­back Cam New­ton was drafted No. 1 over­all.

Pan­thers vet­eran run­ning back Jonathan Ste­wart, who rarely heaps praise on any­one, said McCaf­frey is “pretty un­stop­pable” as a re­ceiver com­ing out of the back­field.

“I can tell you now there’s not go­ing to be any­body in this league that can cover him one-on-one,” Ste­wart said. “He’s a spe­cial player.”

But McCaf­frey, who is no stranger to this set­ting — his fa­ther Ed played 12 sea­sons in the NFL mostly with the Den­ver Bron­cos and won three Su­per Bowls — seems at home on the foot­ball field and is tak­ing the at­ten­tion in stride.

“Any­time I’m on the foot­ball field, that’s my com­fort zone,” McCaf­frey said Tues­day. “That’s my safe place.”

He’s looked plenty com­fort­able de­spite miss­ing al­most all of OTAs and mini­camp due to an NFL Col­lec­tive Bar­gain­ing Agree­ment rule pre­vent­ing col­lege play­ers from par­tic­i­pat­ing in those prac­tices un­til their school has com­pleted its fi­nal ex­ams. Stanford fin­ished later than most schools.

You’d never know he’s try­ing to make up for lost time.

McCaf­frey al­ready has shown a good grasp of the play­book and dis­played what Ste­wart called a “deadly” first step.

Pan­thers three-time All-Pro line­backer Luke Kuechly found out the hard way last week in prac­tice.

While run­ning a route over the mid­dle McCaf­frey put one foot in the ground, then shifted in the other direction in one fluid mo­tion, cre­at­ing im­me­di­ate sep­a­ra­tion to break free for a re­cep­tion. Kuechly fell for the move, stum­bled briefly and then fran­ti­cally raced to try to close the gap.

Corner­back James Brad­berry said he let out an “ooh, ahh” when he watched it on tape.

“He got me,” Kuechly ac­knowl­edged with a wide smile.

He’s got­ten oth­ers, too. The next day in prac­tice McCaf­frey headed out­side in the flat on a route, then put his foot down and quickly broke up the field leav­ing out­side line­backer Shaq Thomp­son grasp­ing at air. He caught a pass 5 yards ahead of Thomp­son.

“He’s shifty,” Thomp­son said.

Added Kuechly: “He’s got shake. … He’s very pre­cise with his move­ments. He is in and out of breaks quick.”

Pan­thers Coach Ron Rivera said McCaf­frey’s first move is to set up a de­fender and then “where he goes from there, it’s up to him.”

It’s a move that McCaf­frey said came nat­u­rally to him while play­ing with his three brothers in a small back­yard grow­ing up in the Den­ver area. There was only a lit­tle patch of grass there, mak­ing things more dif­fi­cult to get around his sib­lings be­fore being tack­led.

“I had to find dif­fer­ent ways to make my older brother miss,” McCaf­frey said.

He said play­ing bas­ket­ball also helped, too.

“A lot of that quick­ness and set­ting peo­ple up and being able to jab one way and go the other way and ex­plode off that first step — that’s where I did a lot of that stuff,” McCaf­frey said.

Sev­eral play­ers have ap­proached Rivera dur­ing train­ing camp to tell him they’re ex­cited about what McCaf­frey brings to the ta­ble.

“Guys come up and tell you, ‘This guy can be spe­cial, coach,’” Rivera said. “We’re see­ing it, and hope­fully you con­tinue to see it.”

Team­mates said McCaf­frey doesn’t act like a rookie.

Ste­wart said McCaf­frey pre­pares like an NFL vet­eran, and that in­cludes a long stretch­ing rou­tine as well as a strict eat­ing and work­out reg­i­men. He said the rookie’s fo­cus never seems to wa­ver.

“His ap­proach to the game, the men­tal part of the craft, is a 10,” Ste­wart said.

AP/CHUCK BUR­TON

Carolina Pan­thers run­ning back Chris­tian McCaf­frey (22) is draw­ing rave re­views about his ath­leti­cism from vet­eran play­ers and coaches dur­ing his first week of train­ing camp.

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