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Panthers rookie may be NFL’s fastest player. He’s more than a track guy playing football

·5 min read
Alex Slitz/alslitz@charlotteobserver.com

Panthers rookie cornerback Kalon Barnes impressed his teammates early in rookie minicamp.

“I went back last night and looked at his (40-yard dash) video and it is crazy,” Panthers rookie linebacker Brandon Smith said after Day 2 of camp. “It is crazy because it’s just like a smooth gradual glide. And that’s exactly how I’ve seen him play for the past few days.”

Barnes caught evaluators’ attention by gliding through an NFL Combine-best 4.23-second 40-yard dash, the second-fastest time ever behind only former Bengals receiver John Ross’ 4.22 in 2017.

As a senior at Baylor, Barnes recorded 23 tackles, five pass deflections and an interception. His 21 catches allowed were the fewest of any Big 12 cornerback. Despite his blazing speed, Barnes remained undrafted entering the seventh round of the 2022 NFL draft until Carolina selected him at No. 242.

Panthers coach Matt Rhule originally recruited Barnes to Baylor and coached him for two years before coming to Carolina. Reunited with his college coach, Barnes has a chance to fulfill his NFL dreams by leaning on the same trait that got him this far: Speed.

More than a track guy

“My dad saw that I was real fast when I was younger,” Barnes said. “Because I was 5 years old playing up in the league. I played tackle (football) at 5 years old.”

Running faster than his competitors came naturally to Barnes. At its core, football is a simple game. Take the ball and do not get touched, your flag pulled or, in 5-year-old Barnes’ cases, tackled. Barnes understood and often outran everyone.

It was not until high school that Barnes recognized his world-class speed.

“I didn’t realize how fast I was until I got to high school when I started running track my junior year when I first broke the (school) record,” Barnes said. “So that’s how I realized how fast I was and obviously playing football. Like I was running past everybody.”

Barnes was a state-champion sprinter at Silsbee High School. He set the Texas state record in the 100-meter dash at 10.22 seconds, which qualified him for the Olympic trials. The next season as a senior, Barnes beat his record with a time of 10.04.

All that speed nearly cost Barnes his college football eligibility. When he was 16 years old, a shoe company offered him a six-figure deal to focus on track professionally. He nearly took the deal. Luckily for his future NFL career, his mother convinced him to stick to football, stressing a one-time payment versus eventually being paid weekly to play ball made more sense.

Barnes still ran track at Baylor. He was a member of the track team as a freshman, winning the 100-meter dash in his debut meet at the USC Trojan Invitational in 2019. Rhule recalled once during a spring practice he planned on giving Barnes a light day to keep him ready for his meet later. But cornerbacks coach Evan Cooper accidentally put Barnes through a full scrimmage. Hours later, Barnes walked across campus for his track meet and ran a 10.43 in the 100-meter dash, much slower than he expected.

Fighting through a football practice and then racing to a track meet embodies who Barnes is as an athlete.

“Most people say that I was a track guy playing football,” Barnes said. “I say I’m a football guy who’s just really fast and ran track. Because I have football skills.”

Making it on the field

Barnes wants to be coached, he said. He does not rely solely on his physical attributes, instead, wanting to grow his knowledge of football. Those tangible traits combined with his world-class speed made Barnes an ideal seventh-round selection.

Reuniting with Rhule gifts Barnes a rare opportunity to pick up where he left off in college with his coach.

“I feel like he really knows me. He was the one who brought me into his program. When I was a freshman, he and his staff, they groomed me. They taught me everything,” Barnes said. “He taught me a lot when I was really young. This is an advantage because he knows what I’m capable of.”

Carolina views Barnes as an outside corner. His make-up speed is valuable on the perimeter against deep routes, but Barnes is confident he can play multiple positions in coordinator Phil Snow’s defense.

“I play outside. But I feel like I could play inside because I learned a lot,” Barnes said. “I know the defense and the plays that we installed these last two days. I know how it works. I feel like I can play the nickel spot.”

Barnes has a chance at making the Panthers’ 53-man roster come training camp. His largest roadblock to making the team will be the talented players above him on the depth chart.

Last year’s first-round pick, Jaycee Horn, is back from a broken foot. Four-year starter and 2018 second-round pick Donte Jackson re-signed. Carolina traded for 2020 first-rounder C.J Henderson last year. The team also likes Myles Hartsfield as an early-down nickel corner. Keith Taylor, a 2021 fifth-rounder, appeared in all 17 games last year and started three.

“We’re really deep in the secondary,” Rhule said. “There’s gonna be a lot of great battles there. He’s gonna have to utilize his speed and physicality on special teams.”

Rookie minicamp ended Sunday. Phase 2 of the offseason workout program began Monday when veterans and rookies come together for the first time. As Barnes continues proving himself, expect his speed to be tested against any and all challengers.

“‘I’m sure they will challenge him (to a race),” Rhule said. “Don’t tell Dante Jackson he’s not the fastest human in the world. It’ll be fun over time.”

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