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Raheem Blackshear ready for "return season"

Raheem Blackshear

CHARLOTTE - The current NFL doesn't allow for many kickoff returns, as 72.2 percent of the league's kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks through Week 13.

But interim Carolina Panthers head coach Chris Tabor, a longtime NFL special teams coach, calls the next few weeks "return season" as the weather turns colder and kicking distance diminishes.

That could give the Panthers an advantage since second-year running back Raheem Blackshear has helped give Carolina one of the best starting positions on the kickoffs the Panthers do get to return.

"His contribution has really been big," Tabor said of Blackshear. "He's been very big when he's gotten opportunities. Obviously, we'll be in the dome (this weekend at New Orleans), but you are clearly - especially in the North - in 'return season' because the ball's not carrying and flying as much."

Raheem Blackshear

Entering Sunday's game at New Orleans, Carolina is third in the NFL in best starting field position - the 26.2-yard line.

In seven returns, Blackshear is averaging 34.3 yards per return with a long return of 52 in the Panthers' 15-13 home victory over the Houston Texans.

"Any opportunity you get, you try and take advantage of it," Blackshear said.

Blackshear's strategy is to be aggressive.

"I'm not fair catching a ball," he said. "If I get a chance to return, I'm coming out."

November 5, 2023: During the game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC. Israel Anta/Cumberland Photos

Success in the return game began for the 5-foot-9, 190-pounder at Philadelphia's Archbishop Wood High School, so much so that Blackshear rarely got opportunities to make returns.

"I first returned kicks in high school," Blackshear said. "But they always kicked away from me."

At Rutgers and Virginia Tech in college, he had 37 kickoff returns for a 19.3 average while picking up 1,927 yards rushing and 1,213 yards receiving for 21 total touchdowns.

A free agent signee of the Panthers in 2022, Blackshear has 26 kickoff returns for a 29.0-yard average while rushing 35 times for 113 yards and catching 15 passes for 134 yards.

"Any opportunity you get, you try and take advantage of it," Blackshear said.

Raheem Blackshear

Since there are so few kickoff return opportunities, Tabor and Blackshear have game-planned their strategies when they do get chances for a return.

"That's a big play for us, and the guys block well for Blackshear because they've got a lot of confidence in him," Tabor said.

Blackshear says he prepares to return every kick, then when he gets a chance, he fields the kick and follows the blocking scheme Tabor and his teammates have prepared.

"You've got to trust the 10 guys in front of you, and we've got some veterans and older guys, and then I just read their blocks," Blackshear said. "When you go into it, you're looking at their best players and try to figure out what the best matchups would be."

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