- How the rookie running back was made for—and, in part, made by—an era of YouTube highlights
SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Twice Christian McCaffrey has put Luke Kuechly in a blender this training camp, and twice the internet has lost its damn mind over it even if it was a simple one-on-one drill.
On the first padded practice of camp, Kuechly kept outside leverage on the rookie running back as he began his move. McCaffrey planted his left foot into the ground and had his right foot raised, a sign to the angled Kuechly that McCaffrey would explode to his right and move toward the boundary. But then he put three right toes into the ground, stepped left foot over right and moved back inside, leaving the best linebacker in the game stretched out like a starfish as McCaffrey caught the pass and ran away.
The following week the two met again in one-on-ones. This time Kuechly gave a little more cushion to McCaffrey, who dug his right foot in and jumped to his left to easily catch the pass for a minimal gain. But rather than follow his left shoulder and go down the sideline, McCaffrey ran horizontally a few steps and spun 270 degrees counter-clockwise back inside.
Kuechly braced himself with his left hand to the ground and recovered, still with a pursuit angle. And that’s when McCaffrey finished him off with a Reggie Bush vs. Fresno State-like move (you know, that move) that left Kuechly grasping at air again.
“One-on-ones man, he doesn’t get enough credit,” McCaffrey told The MMQB after practice that day. “A one-on-one drill, the running back should win 100% of the time. That’s a tough drill for a linebacker when you have the entire field to roll with.”
McCaffrey is right—those moves wouldn’t have done much in live game action when there are 10 other defenders on the field. But it makes for good preseason internet fodder in a world enraptured by the kind of highlight reels McCaffrey and his generation grew up watching.
YouTube was founded in 2005 and began growing in popularity in the summer of 2006. You could watch Bush’s full-stop move against Fresno State from the season before as many times as you wanted. The following year would bring Sam McGuffie, the first viral high school athlete in YouTube history. His jukes and hurdles became legend among teenagers across the country.
“I stay on YouTube all the time to watch different highlight videos that can help me but also just for fun,” says McCaffrey, who wore No. 5 in high school and college in honor of of Bush.
When Bush was making Heisman moves at USC and McGuffie was leaping over defenders at Texas’s Cy Fair High, McCaffrey wasn’t even in high school yet; he was 11 years old. But he was at an age when he could take what he was seeing and repeat it until it became muscle memory. He could shimmy and shake in middle school, honing it until he could embarrass defenders in high school.
Fittingly, McCaffrey’s personal YouTube channel has only one upload: his own seven-and-a-half minute highlight reel from his senior season at Valor Christian High School. There are no frills: no quick edits, no dissolves, no slo-mo replays and certainly no soundtrack. It’s just McCaffrey shaking fellow teenagers every which way in the video titled, simply, “Christian McCaffrey Senior Year Highlights.”
Of course, McCaffrey didn’t get this good just by watching videos (otherwise he’d look like Napoleon Dynamite dancing at the talent show). There’s the hard work, and then there is the genetics. Dad, Ed McCaffrey, put together a 13-year career as an NFL wide receiver, winning three Super Bowl rings along the way. Mom, Lisa McCaffrey, was a star soccer player at Stanford, where the two met.
In June, when Panthers coach Ron Rivera held his annual charity bowling tournament, Christian and Lisa participated—mom was in town to help Christian get settled into his Charlotte apartment. Lisa warned Rivera and wife Stephanie that she was competitive. Sure enough, her all-women team won their group.
“Hey Christian,” Lisa shouted across the alley with her spoils in hand, “this is what a winner looks like!”
McCaffrey quickly admits he “got lucky as far as the gene pool” goes, but he also works at making people miss, studying film and understanding leverage. This off-season, with NFL rules barring him from joining the Panthers until Stanford finished its academic quarter-system calendar, McCaffrey did sessions with his trainer in Colorado and with the national bobsled team at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where they worked on different sprinting techniques. (And in an odd twist, McGuffie, the former YouTube sensation, is now on that bobsled team.)
On the day of The MMQB’s visit to Panthers camp, McCaffrey took nearly all the first-team reps while veteran Jonathan Stewart took the day off. He lined up everywhere—behind, to the left of and to the right of the quarterback, in the slot, out wide, out wide before motioning to the slot. He fielded punts, too, and is expected to be Carolina’s punt returner when they travel to San Francisco to open the season.
But McCaffrey’s biggest letdown was a drop on a simple pass in the red zone on one of his patented outside-in routes. With linebacker Thomas Davis lurking, McCaffrey allowed a Derek Anderson pass to bounce off the left side of his chest and fall to the ground.
The rookie stayed well after practice with fourth-string quarterback Garrett Gilbert to make up for the drop. Rivera looked at his watch and saw the day nearing noon, which meant the NFL-mandated three-hour practice window was coming to a close in minutes. Rivera told a PR staffer to get Gilbert and McCaffrey off the field in the next minute or two. When an iPhone showed the time was 12 on the dot, Rivera told the staffer to get them off the field immediately.
If the staying-after-practice cliché isn’t enough for you, there are two more before we wrap up this story. (1) McCaffrey boarded a cart destined for the locker room, a route that would bypass screaming men, women and children pleading for his signature. This made McCaffrey visibly upset, and he asked a staffer to apologize to the crowd for him. Then he saw a half-dozen Marines and stepped off the cart to speak with, and sign for, them.
And (2) After lunch, in the post-practice downtime before meetings, Panthers players gathered in Wofford College’s student union that becomes the players’ lounge for three weeks each summer. They nap, watch TV, FaceTime with loved ones and play table games. McCaffrey sat at a barstool while a game of dominoes played out behind him. He had his head buried in his tablet, studying the playbook, bobbing his head to the music in his headphones.
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