SPARTANBURG — When Jaycee Horn was asked about a fight in a joint practice Wednesday morning, he could only laugh.
This time, it wasn't him.
The thing about the Panthers rookie cornerback, however, is that he's already showing the signs of being at the center of it all — whether it's picks in practice or scraps with the other team.
"He's got that alpha mentality," Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said of Horn. "I think you guys saw that out there today. He's right in the middle of everything. He's vocal; he's tough. A lot of guys can be vocal and not back it up. Jaycee's a guy who backs it up. He's the real deal when it comes to that.
"That's the attitude and toughness that we want our team to be identified with. We want more guys like him."
It's hard for football people to put too much, or expect too much out of any rookie. It goes against their conditioning. When Horn had a couple of interceptions early in camp, the immediate reaction from coaches was to talk about how he gets a little handsy with receivers, and how he needs to make sure he's not committing too many penalties.
He's set a high standard already, so they're adjusting expectations for him accordingly.
That's why it wasn't a surprise that when fellow rookie cornerback Keith Taylor upended a Ravens receiver and a fight broke out, that Horn was immediately in the middle of it, and in the same vicinity as Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters, who ran from the other field to be in the middle of it too.
"The one today really didn't have much to do with me," Horn said. "Everybody wants to blame me for the scuffles. But I was on the sideline. When it broke out, we just came to help our teammates like anybody would. It's just two physical teams going at it."
Peters is one of those kinds of corners too, so it's not surprising there was some chatter between them.
Last week with the Colts, Horn got into a thing resembling a fight when a Colts receiver baited him into it. That's the kind of treatment rookie corners get (Steve Smith Sr. used to do it to guys with hothead reputations all the time), but Horn already knows it's coming.
"Nah, I'm physical and competitive and confident, but I know when enough is enough," Horn said. "Any time I'm doing something to hurt the team, I won't let the receiver get in my head and get me to do that. I'm a smart player, I know when enough is enough."
That's a lesson some corners never learn, but Horn's clearly not just some corner.
Being born into an NFL household gives him a different gravity, and having former Saints wideout Joe Horn teaching him the NFL life from an early age has led to a more mature player walking in the door.
That's why when Fitterer and head coach Matt Rhule talk about their big decisions this offseason, the notion of rolling with quarterback Sam Darnold becomes a package deal. It wasn't just the idea of evaluating Darnold; it was the possibility of adding a serviceable-or-better quarterback and a cornerback like Horn, and the kind of young leader they wanted to build a defense around.
And in a room that includes some old-heads and some guys who have reputations of their own, Horn is beginning to stand out.
"You feel the presence when you walk in," Fitterer explained. "He's a take-charge kind of guy. He's a no-nonsense, hyper-competitive person. So to me, that's the alpha, that's the guy in charge. When he walks into the room, he takes charge. And you feel that with him. We want more guys like that on this roster.
"His dad raised him the right way; he's wired the right way. And a lot of that is, the kid has to be born that way too. You can push them and nurture them so far, but that kid is hard-wired a special way."
While it's not just Horn, the Panthers defense is beginning to show that kind of personality they're looking for.
Last week against the Colts, they were the ones fighting back after the team as a whole was pushed around a bit.
And of course, Horn was right there, in the middle of it all, just like he was against the Ravens.
"You just can't back down to nobody," Horn said. "We have to show them we're physical. We all know they're a physical team, so just trying to set our step in the league and be a physical defense. . . .
"Like I said, it's a standard we're supposed to be at. We play hard, fast and physical, and that's just the standard. I see myself fitting right in with that. Playing hard, fast and physical. that's what I'm going to try to go out there and do."
That's what alphas do.
View photos from Wednesday's joint practice with Baltimore down at Wofford.