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Jaycee Horn, a "football junkie," is back on the field

Jaycee Horn

So as the Panthers cornerback works his way back to what amounts to a rookie year all over again, he's relishing every rep during OTAs.

Of course, Horn's no ordinary rookie, as he showed in the three games he played last year, before a broken foot sidelined the 2021 first-rounder.

"Jaycee obviously missed a lot of football; but Jaycee, he's a football junkie," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said this week. "He was learning as the year went on last year. That's why these reps are so important. Every walkthrough. Every meeting. Every little bit that they do on their own. Every team period is a chance for those guys to develop."

At the rate Horn was developing last year, it's likely that recognition would have followed. He had an interception and was building a reputation as a shutdown corner in his short time on the field, so hearing the all-rookie teams and defensive rookie of the year honors awarded was tough for him, as he waited and rehabbed.

That's nothing against all-rookie corners Greg Newsome II of the Browns or Patrick Surtain II of the Broncos, or Dallas linebacker Micah Parsons, who won defensive rookie of the year honors. It's just that Horn holds himself to a high standard.

"It ate me up; I'm not gonna lie," Horn admitted. "It killed me because regardless of circumstances, I ain't hitting my goals last year, you know? I wanted to be in that conversation. I wanted to be in the playoffs, I wanted to win, and I couldn't do any of that. I was hurt, so even though I couldn't control it, with me being hurt, it still ate at me bad. So all I can do is keep stacking the days and wait till game one."

A year ago, he was forced to watch and learn. That meant a lot of tape, and a lot of time spent with mentor and former defensive player of the year Stephon Gilmore. He learned everything from the minutiae of defenses to physical recovery tips from Gilmore, and now he's ready to share those lessons. He's part of a much younger cornerback room, where 26-year-old Donte Jackson is practically the old man.

But Horn's always had the gravity of a veteran player, one of the side effects of growing up in an NFL household (his father was former Saints and Falcons wideout Joe Horn). He's still glad that Jackson's back, though, because he still hasn't quite wrapped his mind around the idea of being a leader (though he is).

"It was real comforting, cause he was like my vet when I came in," Horn said of Jackson, who re-signed this offseason after a brief trip to the free agent market. "He took me under his wing, showed me the ropes, showed me how to practice, showed me how to do all the little things. So I was kind of wary that I had to step into that leadership role real quick if he got out of here. So I was happy to know he was coming back, and I get to learn more from him, because, you know, it's definitely good to have him as a teammate."

And seeing Horn back on the field is good for them. During a recent practice, Horn took off during an individual drill, and casually made a leaping, twisting, one-handed grab behind his head in the middle of an otherwise nondescript practice, the kind of play that reminds you he's different.

Not being able to do more of that last year was tough for him — and them, obviously. But now he's back, and not taking a day for granted.

"It was difficult," he said of his forced absence last year. "Obviously, just being a competitor and seeing your team out there, you know, fighting to win and you can't help them out. It's frustrating, but you just take what comes with it. It helped me grow as a person and learn a little more about myself, so it was a good experience."

View photos from all the action at the Panthers OTAs workout on Thursday, May 26, 2022.

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