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Carolina connections at combine

Posted Feb 26, 2016

Plenty of players trying to put their best foot forward at the NFL Scouting Combine have ties to the Panthers' footprint.

INDIANAPOLIS – When more than 300 of the top prospects for the NFL Draft descend on Lucas Oil Stadium every February for the NFL Scouting Combine, there's always a subset within the group that already has familiarity with the Panthers.

Here's a sampling of some of their stories.

East Carolina tight end Bryce Williams, a North Carolina native who walked on first at Marshall and then at East Carolina, now finds himself at the combine and is considered a possible mid-round selection.

"It's shocking to be able to say, ‘Wow, I'm at the NFL Scouting Combine,' " Williams said. "It's something I've seen on TV. So to be invited, I'm fortunate and blessed. I'm excited to be able to show off my skills."

And what are his skills?

"I'm a tough player and I'm versatile," Williams said. "I'm a good receiver who can make plays."

South Carolina wide receiver Pharoh Cooper, another North Carolina native, played safety in high school but switched to offense at former Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier's suggestion. Now he's poised to possibly be a second-round draft choice.

"Coming out of high school, I wanted to play defensive back. Coach Spurrier wanted me on offense, but I wanted to try DB first," Cooper said. "About a week-and-a-half into camp, I wasn't getting any reps at DB. I was like third string, still catching punts every day.

"Coach Spurrier came up to me and said, ‘I'm gonna try to put you on offense. The DB coaches said you probably won't get no playing time this year.' I said OK. I went to offense the next day, and I just went from there."

Clemson defensive ends Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson, both South Carolina natives, said the competition at their position helped get them where they are today.

"Coming in my freshman year in 2012, we had a lot of guys, especially at defensive end, guys like Vic Beasley and Malliciah Goodman," Dodd said. "We were really deep. Then when some of those guys finished up, guys like myself got the chance to step up."

Beasley and Goodman both ended up being picked by the Falcons in different drafts. It's very unlikely of course that Dodd and Lawson both end up with the Panthers given that both could be first-round selections, but you never know.

"That would be great, an hour and forty-five minutes from home," Lawson said. "I paid attention to those guys a lot this year during their Super Bowl run. They were a great team with a great defense. It would be great to play close to home where all my family and friends could come see me."

Duke center Matt Skura started out in a program with not nearly the volume of NFL players as Clemson, but last year he watched as former Blue Devils guard Laken Tomlinson was selected in the first round and former Blue Devils wide receiver Jamison Crowder was chosen in the fourth round.

"It definitely boosted my confidence," said Skura, who may or may not get drafted but has a chance to prove his value at the combine. "It definitely gave me motivation, because you don't really see Duke football players being drafted that high."

Not that Skura isn't used to being around NFL players. Duke coach head David Cutcliffe coached both Peyton and Eli Manning in college, a fact that has helped the Blue Devils in more way than one.

"Peyton and Eli would give us talks after practice, telling us, ‘It's not an easy road. You've got to work hard,' " Skura said. "All of their success wasn't easy. Even though they had a lot of talent, they had to work, and they had to be very detail-oriented as well. Just seeing those guys gives you motivation."

Florida defensive end Jonathan Bullard, who grew up not far from Charlotte in Shelby, idolizes a former Panther – at least that's what he told his brother.

"Julius Peppers is my favorite player. My oldest brother actually wore No. 90 because of Julius, and I wore No. 90 because of my brother," Bullard said. "But I don't tell him that; I say it's because of Julius Peppers."

Bullard, a potential first-round pick, said it would be awesome to play for the Panthers.

"It would be neat," he said. "I know my high school fan base would follow me. That would be crazy, being that close."

Ohio State offensive tackle Taylor Decker is quite familiar with Panthers guard Andrew Norwell. While most expect Decker to be a first-round draft choice, Norwell went undrafted out of Ohio State but is now Carolina's starting left guard.

"Norwell, he kind of keeps to himself. He's always been like that," Decker said. "He probably seems like he's mean, but he's actually a real nice guy once you get to know him.

"He does everything with a ton of energy, and he always screamed really loud when he broke the huddle. Some people thought it was funny, but people really caught onto that. They saw his energy and his passion for the game and how much he loved it. It brought energy, brought passion. That dude loves football, and that can go a long way for you."