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Jeff Nixon enjoying the "challenge" of coaching Christian McCaffrey
The running back has been peppering Nixon with questions to further understand the new Panthers' offense. 
By Myles Simmons Jun 15, 2020

If getting back into the NFL wasn't intriguing enough for Jeff Nixon, coaching the Panthers' running backs offered quite the incentive: inheriting one of the most dynamic players in the league.

Christian McCaffrey became just the third player in league history to record both 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in a single season last year. Now, as Nixon helps install a new offensive scheme with the Panthers, he'll also try to keep pushing McCaffrey's ceiling.

In studying McCaffrey upon joining head coach Matt Rhule in his move from Baylor to Carolina, Nixon first noticed his star back's toughness.

"He is a tough, tough kid — very few negative runs," said Nixon, who also holds the title of senior offensive assistant.

"He can pass protect, which is an underrated quality for a running back in the NFL because we're gonna throw the ball 60 to 65 percent of the time. You've got to be able to protect the quarterback, and Christian can do that."

It's part of why McCaffrey rarely leaves the field, making him a prototypical "three-down back."

"On third down, he doesn't have to come out," Nixon said. "He can stay in, and he'll be able to protect Teddy (Bridgewater), and obviously, catch the ball out of the backfield."

Despite the new offense, McCaffrey's role isn't expected to be all that much different. He'll run the ball out of the backfield. He'll line up outside and run routes as a receiver. He'll have to protect the quarterback in known-passing situations.

But still, new schemes bring learning curves, and this offseason has brought a whole new challenge.

"It's definitely a challenge learning virtually, but (Nixon) has made it so easy for us in the way that he explains concepts and running back responsibilities," McCaffrey said.

"Obviously, he has a great résumé coaching not just running backs but all positions, so it's cool to see his perspective on the offense and continue to learn from him."

After Nixon and Rhule became close friends in high school, they were roommates at Penn State and assistant coaches at Temple in 2006. While Rhule eventually became the Owls' head coach seven seasons later, Nixon's path included three stops in the NFL. He was an offensive/special teams assistant with the Eagles, a running backs coach with the Dolphins and tight ends coach with the 49ers before reuniting with Rhule at Baylor in 2017.

Now, after only two months working remotely with McCaffrey, Nixon has already discovered how serious McCaffrey takes his job.

"Christian is the type of player who's gonna call me three or four times a day asking questions like, 'OK, what do you mean by this? What are we doing on this play?'" Nixon said. "He's a smart kid, and he wants to learn, and he wants to be the best, so he works at it.

"He does challenge me as a coach because he's gonna ask a lot of questions, and he's gonna want to do everything in his power to get better mentally here in the offseason learning our system."

Nixon has also challenged McCaffrey, who's soaked in more than just his position in the new offense.

"The biggest thing I've picked up from Coach Nixon is learning not just my job but everyone else's job — taking the knowledge of the game to the next level and putting it into the same terminology across the board," McCaffrey said.

"He has such a good understanding of route running to protection to receiver routes to line calls, so it's been fun to further understand the game in that way."

Even though McCaffrey will continue to be the focus at running back, Nixon is intrigued by the depth in his room.

The coach called Mike Davis the kind of veteran running back who "has the total package and can do a little bit of everything for us." Nixon noted Reggie Bonnafon made "some really big plays running the football and catching out of the backfield." Nixon also expects Jordan Scarlett to make a push to contribute after an injury-shortened rookie season.

The Panthers also signed undrafted rookie Rodney Smith out of Minnesota, who was one of only three running backs in the Big Ten to rush for at least 1,000 yards in 2019.

"Extremely excited about him — fortunate we signed him," Nixon said. "He had a great career in Minnesota with over 5,000 all-purpose yards. He's going to come in and compete and add to our room, and hopefully be able to contribute to help us win some football games."

As the Panthers continue through the offseason, Nixon believes the running backs will be in good shape coming training camp.

"I think the guys have responded well to the situation. The guys are learning, and I think we'll be ready to rock and roll once we do get back and get on the field," Nixon said. " I think the guys vividly will know what we expect out of them with our systems."

Nixon was co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach at Baylor from 2017-19.

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