SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- If there were any lingering doubts about how good Christian McCaffrey is in open space against NFL competition, just ask arguably the best middle linebacker in the league.
“He got me today on one run, but luckily Thomas [Davis] was right next to me,’’ Kuechly said of the former Stanford running back/receiver. “He’s quick. He’s got shake. He’s fast."
Granted, this was only the first practice in pads and Kuechly might have been more aggressive had this been a game situation.
But Kuechly, like McCaffrey, really only has one gear -- and that’s wide open. So this much-anticipated confrontation was one to behold.
“The way he runs, you can tell he’s done it a few times,’’ Kuechly said with a smile. “He’s very precise with his movements. He’s in and out of breaks quick. I think he’s going to be somebody that helps us out."
Kuechly isn’t the only one who thinks this. Several players have gone out of their way to tell coach Ron Rivera that McCaffrey is going to be something “special.’’
“A lot of guys like what Christian brings to the table," Rivera said. “We’re all excited about who he can be for us. It’s been exciting to watch him."
McCaffrey has left several players grasping for air with his jukes and quick first step. But none was more impressive than the one he made on Kuechly, primarily because the opponent was Kuechly.
You don’t expect him to get juked by anybody -- particularly a 5-foot-11, 205-pound rookie.
“It made me give a little ohh-ahh when he did it,’’ said cornerback James Bradberry, watching the double move from a distance.
One of the reasons the Panthers used the eighth overall pick on McCaffrey was because of his versatility. He can play running back, slot receiver and even line up wide.
One could argue he’s as effective as a receiver as he is as a running back because of the mismatches he creates in open space, particularly with his first move.
Linebackers and defensive backs are almost helpless.
“His first move is to set you up," Rivera said. “Then where he goes from there is up to him. He’s the one that feels it. He’s natural at what he does.
“He works at it. Works very hard at it. That’s why he can be a very good player in this league."
McCaffrey was beyond very good in college. In 2015, he broke Barry Sanders’ NCAA record for most all-purpose yards in a season with 3,864, including 2,019 rushing.
He gives the Panthers the kind of player who has given them fits in the past. Kuechly compared McCaffrey to Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman, whose dual-threat ability helped the Falcons reach the Super Bowl last season.
That McCaffrey can run every phase of the receiver route tree makes him arguably more of a threat.
“When you have a running back that can do that, it poses problems," Kuechly said. “When they motion him outside he’s got a route tree he can run versus some other running backs that are either going to run a slant or a go or a sit. You’ve got to know where he is."
Speed also makes McCaffrey scary. The Panthers made a concerted effort to add more overall speed on offense with the addition of him, second-round pick Curtis Samuel and others.
“Obviously Curtis is fast and Christian is fast," Kuechly said. “But there’s some dudes that can roll, that are fast. You watch tape and there’s dudes that are flying.
“There’s tons of them. That’s good for us. Speed creates space, it creates problems, it scares people."
But few, if any, are scarier than McCaffrey. Kuechly can’t imagine any linebacker in the league who will look forward to meeting the 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up in the open field as he did on Friday.
“It’s not a good feeling," Kuechly said. “You hope that somebody is by you."