CHARLOTTE – With their sixth-round pick in the NFL Draft, the Panthers added running back Kenjon Barner to an offensive backfield already backlogged with talent.
One thing Barner knows how to do is stand out from a crowd.
"Speed is what got me to this point, being able to get away from people and break plays open," said Barner, a speed merchant who piled up more than 3,600 rushing yards even while spending much of his career at Oregon as a backup. "That's one of my main strengths and has a lot to do with why I've gotten noticed."
After backing up LaMichael James – a second-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers a year ago – for three seasons, Barner emerged from the shadows in a grand way last season, amassing 1,767 yards and 23 touchdowns to earn consensus All-America honors.
He was expected to follow James as a high draft pick but surprised many by running a 4.52 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. Barner responded by running a sub-4.4 at his pro day but said it might have been too late for some NFL teams.
The Panthers saw it otherwise, believing that Barner's best is good enough for him to compete for a roster spot on a team that features proven backs like former Oregon star Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert.
"Doing that at the combine I'm sure probably turned some people off, but running what I did at the combine I'm sure helped me as well," Barner said. "After I got back from the combine, me and my trainer sat down and watched my start. We corrected the things we needed to correct, and I was able to run a lot faster than I did at the combine."
Stewart was among those congratulating Barner on his selection, tweeting "Congrats to the homie" shortly after the pick.
"He left the year before I got there, but every time he comes back to Oregon, I talk to him and hang out," Barner said of Stewart. "There's a pretty good relationship there."
As Barner became more and more of a factor in Oregon's backfield, he became less and less of a factor on special teams but expects that to change quickly on the pro level. Barner topped 1,000 kickoff return yards as a freshman – including a 100-yard touchdown return – and he averaged 11.7 yards per punt return over his first two college seasons.
"That's what got me started in college – being on special teams, being a kick returner, being a punt returner, being a gunner," Barner said. "Getting back to that is something I'm looking forward to.
"Special teams will be key. Special teams will probably be the biggest reason why I make this team."