CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers wide receiver Stephen Hill blew past the cornerback down the right sideline and made a somewhat tricky, over-the-shoulder catch from backup quarterback Derek Anderson.
Starting quarterback Cam Newton took off in a full sprint, hooting and hollering as he ran, to congratulate Hill some 50 yards away.
Others joined in the celebration.
Hill had two other deep catches during Thursday’s practice, but none that stood out or got the reaction from teammates quite like this one.
This was the type of play Hill was expected to make on a regular basis when the New York Jets selected him in the second round of the 2012 draft. This was the type of play Hill watched others make last season as a member of Carolina’s practice squad after the Jets cut him at the end of training camp.
If he can do that regularly over the next few weeks of organized team activities (OTAs) and into training camp, Hill will be in the mix with second-round draft pick Devin Funchess, Corey Brown and possibly Ted Ginn Jr. for the No. 2 receiver spot opposite Kelvin Benjamin.
“Yeah, it’s a battle,’’ wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl said. “It’ll be Corey, Devin, Stephen no doubt at the Z. But when you look at Stephen Hill with his speed and his size, he also can be that backup to X and Z.
“I told Stephen, I know you’ve got great speed, the rout running has gotten better. I just want to see him play physical and catch the ball with contested catches . . . consistently.’’
Thursday was a chance for Hill to showcase his talent because Benjamin was out with a hamstring injury and Funchess was in Los Angeles for a rookie seminar.
He took full advantage, making big play after big play.
He wasn’t alone. Brown also made at least two deep catches, one that also got a congratulatory sprint from Newton.
But what Hill has that Brown doesn’t is size to go along with great speed. Brown is 5-foot-11. Hill is 6-4 and 215 pounds.
That can create mismatches against small corners just like the ones Benjamin (6-5) created last season as a rookie.
It’s that combination of size and speed that made Hill a high draft pick coming out of Georgia Tech. It was his inconsistency catching (45 catches out of 106 targets) in two seasons that led the Jets to let him go.
“It was a stressful time at first when it happened,’’ Hill said. “Other than that I took it as a positive note. Just learning how to be a complete receiver.’’
Is he close?
“I’m not close at all,’’ Hill said. “I’m still learning.’’
It’s that desire to improve and humble attitude after going from 19 starts in 2012-2013 to the practice squad that has Proehl and others at Carolina pulling for Hill to succeed.
Proehl constantly reminds how Hill made extra time last season to learn the offense and “never complained once’’ after being placed in a situation he’d never faced before.
“He busted his ass and worked on what he needed to work on to become a better route runner and get stronger with his hands,’’ Proehl said. “He’s a kid you want to succeed because he’s such a good kid and he’s worked so hard and you see him making progress.’’
That progress was evident on Thursday.
“Today was a really good day for him,’’ coach Ron Rivera said.
Afterward, Hill found himself surrounded by reporters as he often did in New York. He didn’t always appreciate in New York what he calls “unnecessary’’ attention from the media, who criticized him for dropping balls.
He used the word “annoying’’ on several occasions.
But Hill isn’t shying away from the attention he’s getting now or from what he can do to help Carolina in 2015.
“I’m definitely ready to help out this year,’’ Hill said. “I took a step backwards to hopefully take 10 steps forward.’’