SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Ball in hand, Christian McCaffrey bolts toward the line of scrimmage, planting his foot with a plan in mind. His approach sends a signal to the nearest defender that he's headed in one direction, and then in a flash he heads a different way and there's nothing but green grass in front of him.
Not that much green grass, mind you.
"We had a little grass patch," McCaffrey said, recalling how, at an early age in his parents' back yard, he began to develop the devastating moves that propelled him to a standout college career and into the first round of the NFL Draft. "There wasn't a lot of space to work with, so I had to find different ways to make my older brother miss.
"I don't know, I think it just came naturally."
McCaffrey remembers those days fondly, his father, Ed (a longtime NFL receiver), and his mother, Linda (a soccer player at Stanford), watching their four boys duke it out. Tackle football most days but tag at times, with young Christian pretending to be Barry Sanders one day and Reggie Bush the next, trying to get an edge on older brother Max (now a second-year receiver for the Packers). At the same time, if Christian's concentration wavered, younger brother Dylan (set to play football at Michigan) or youngest brother Luke (high school class of 2019) stood at the ready to take him down.
This summer, however, a different Luke has his sights set on McCaffrey. Linebacker Luke Kuechly, the ninth pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is among the Panthers trying to slow down the player Carolina selected eighth overall in the draft three months ago.
McCaffrey has gotten the best of Kuechly a couple of times early in training camp, and vice versa. The rookie already has the attention of – and the respect of – his veteran teammates.
"Obviously, he is a dynamic kid with the ball in his hand," tight end Greg Olsen said. "We all saw him play at Stanford. I don't think any of us are surprised with what he can do. He's a kid that can handle a lot.
"You've seen him; he can line up in a lot of different formations, not just stand next to Cam or stand behind Cam in the backfield. He can move around and do a lot of different things, both as a running back and kind of a pseudo-receiver type body.
"It's nice to see him get in here and do it at this level and do it this early. He has a special makeup to him; he has the special composure that nothing is too big; nothing is a surprise to him, either."
Olsen said McCaffrey has been as impressive as is possible in a "non-tackle practice type of thing," but soon enough McCaffrey will be going against defenders as passionate about shutting him down as his brothers were.
"There is always pressure. There's always pressure, when you step onto a football field, to be great," McCaffrey said. "But I don't feel it, I just go out there and play ball."
With preparation comes the ability to handle pressure, and McCaffrey has been preparing his whole life. His father, who played 13 years in the NFL and earned three Super Bowl rings, provided a blueprint for success.
McCaffrey was only able to take part in the final day of the Panthers' month of OTAs/minicamp because of an NFL rule regarding academic calendars, but he looked like he hadn't missed a single day upon his arrival at camp. Even so, when the players got Monday off, McCaffrey stayed on the Wofford campus, spotted at various times by head coach Ron Rivera watching film and getting treatment.
"Just so I can get ahead," McCaffrey explained.
He does play cards at times or Connect Four, which he calls "my game." It's a game notorious for ties, a game where only someone who can think several steps ahead has a real chance to win.
McCaffrey is the type that always seems to be at least one step ahead – even before he plants his foot in the grass and moves forward.
"For me, anytime I'm on the football field, that's kind of my comfort zone. That is where I feel comfortable," McCaffrey said. "All of the veterans here have been so great to me, helping me learn all of the plays, getting in touch with everything and making sure everything is OK in the huddle.
"I can't thank those guys enough, but I would definitely say the football field is my safe place."
View photos from Carolina's sixth day of practice at training camp.