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Jaycee Horn even plays ping pong in pads

Jaycee Horn

CHARLOTTE — There was a huge game coming up, and Jaycee Horn couldn't wait to get to it.

So there in the locker room earlier this week, still sweating from practice, the Panthers cornerback jumped on the ping pong table immediately so he and Brian Burns could get back after their personal feud.

They were so quick to get there that Horn was still wearing his spider (also known as a shell, the protective shoulder pads they wear under their jerseys on lighter days of practice). It's almost like even in a game of table tennis, Horn was anticipating contact and preparing for it.

"Yeah, we get off the practice field; we get right to it," Horn said with a grin. "It's almost like a routine at this point; me and Burns get in here and battle it out.

"That's the first thing we do."

The fact he couldn't even wait to change out of his practice uniform is a peek into the mindset of the 22-year-old corner, and a bit of a metaphor.

He's eager to get to this season, to get back to football, after a broken foot cost him all but three games of his rookie season.

"Obviously, I was out last season, so I'm ready to play," Horn said. "But I'm also trying not to get too hyped, too early. Just trying to take it day by day, prepare how I always prepare, and don't let the moment get too big. Just go out and play my game."

That's easier said than done, but Horn has also had a lifetime to prepare. Growing up in an NFL household (his father was longtime Saints and Falcons receiver Joe Horn) has given him a gravity and perspective most young players don't share.

So when asked how he kept himself in check, he sounded almost like a coach, but definitely someone grounded in the game and its sayings.

"Staying where your feet are," Horn replied. "Staying in meetings, like coach Rhule talked about. When you're in meetings, be in meetings; when you're at practice, be in practice. When you're lifting weights, lift your weights. Don't get too excited for Sunday. Even though it seems so close, it's a long way away.

"Just trying to stay even-keeled and go out there and just play ball."

And that's something they all look forward to.

Jaycee Horn

Horn developed a quick following in his short time last season because of the plays he made. There were very few passes completed against him, though that included a touchdown in the opener (which required a perfect throw by Zach Wilson since Horn was well-positioned and nearly tipped it away). He made up for it with a pick the following week against the Saints, and one of the hallmarks of his short season was the way opponents largely avoided throwing at him. That's how you measure respect.

You can also measure it in the way people talk about you.

Defensive coordinator Phil Snow was referring to Horn last week, and said: "Personally, I think he's one of the best players in the league, and will be."

Horn is 22 and has played three games.

Panthers head coach Matt Rhule was talking about some of the veterans on the defense, and casually mentioned Horn among players who have been here much longer.

"He's only played three games. He's got the mindset of a winner," Rhule said of last year's first-round pick. "The guy has got a mindset of a winner. That's all I can say. In this job, you're always in a war for people's focus. So many things pull our focus away. Jaycee Horn is focused on being great at football.

"That's a great person to have in your locker room."

And if you look in that locker room immediately after practice, chances are, you'll see him engaged in his own competition with Burns, fighting for supremacy, and maybe still in pads.

Jaycee Horn can't wait to compete, even if it means he's overdressed for ping pong to be able to do it sooner.

"That's it, that's it," Horn said with a laugh. "It's time to go."

View photos from Thursday's practice at the Atrium Health practice fields.

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