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Panthers' Christian McCaffrey also 'home run hitter' in return game

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Christian McCaffrey kept drifting back and back until he was inside the Stanford 5-yard line. Three Kansas State defenders were bearing down on him -- full throttle and unblocked.

It was one of those punts where every member of the Stanford coaching staff was thinking or screaming, "No! No! No! Let the ball go into the end zone!"

McCaffrey had other thoughts.

He caught the ball at the 4-yard line with one defender within striking distance on his right. He stepped out of that defender’s reach, then lowered his helmet and shoulder pads to take on the next two.

He then spun to the left out of those tackles, sidestepped another potential tackler at the 10 and another at the 15.

Then he was off to the races.

Touchdown!

Except for one thing. There was a penalty, calling it back, so few outside those at the stadium ever saw it or heard about the play from last season’s opener.

"It doesn’t show up on the stat sheet," recalled Carolina wide receivers coach Lance Taylor, McCaffrey’s position coach the past three seasons at Stanford. "It doesn’t show up on any highlights or anything because it was called back.

"But it was just an unbelievable, freak-of-nature return."

You’ve heard about the "wow" factor McCaffrey has brought to the Carolina Panthers' offense as a running back, slot receiver and wide receiver.

You’ve heard how the eighth pick of the draft has juked out middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and others to the point running back Jonathan Stewart said nobody in the NFL will be able to stop McCaffrey one-on-one.

Well, oh by the way, McCaffrey is just as dangerous on special teams.

The 5-foot-11, 205-pound dynamo didn’t return a punt or a kickoff in Carolina’s preseason opener against Houston. There are no guarantees he will in Saturday’s preseason game at Tennessee.

There’s no real reason to risk injury.

But McCaffrey is listed first on the depth chart at punt returner and as a backup as a kickoff returner. You can bet he’ll be a weapon when the regular season starts.

"He's a home run hitter when it comes to the return game," Taylor said. "He's special, just like all the other phases that we’ve seen him working."

The Kansas State return that didn’t count magnifies that. Taylor recommended Jim Skipper take a look at it before the draft, when the running backs coach asked for a few examples of what McCaffrey could do.

"Ten minutes later, Coach Skipper came back in and he was like, 'Hey, man! This guy is pretty special,'" Taylor recalled.

The Panthers arguably haven’t had a punt-return specialist this special since Steve Smith in his first three seasons (2001-2003). Smith returned four punts for touchdowns during that span, two coming in 2002.

There have been only four other punts returned for touchdowns in team history, all by different players.

This isn’t to suggest McCaffrey will be returning punts for touchdowns like Devin Hester, who holds the NFL record with 14. McCaffrey had only one punt return for a touchdown at Stanford, a 63-yarder in the 2016 Rose Bowl against Iowa.

He had only one kickoff return for a touchdown, a 98-yarder against California in 2015.

He was busy setting records for all-purpose yards, as he did in 2015, when he shattered Barry Sanders’ single-season mark (3,250) with 3,864.

But at least McCaffrey is a threat to go the distance every time, something the Panthers really haven’t had in a long time.

What makes McCaffrey special as a returner is the same thing that makes him special in the open field as a receiver or back.

His first move.

"When you can get past that first guy, when you trust your gunners and have that trust to make your first move to get going, that’s where he’s pretty freaking elite," Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren said.

"The one he had against Kansas State ... is just one to watch. It was such a sudden move. He caught, he's out and then the rest is history."

Carolina coach Ron Rivera said that ability to make the first player miss "inspires guys to block even more."

"If you can show your return team, your blockers, that all they really need to do is give the guy a chance, he can make a play ... he can make a play," Rivera said.

But it's not just the first move that makes McCaffrey dangerous as a returner.

"He's fearless," Taylor said. "As a kick returner you can't have any fear. You can't have fear of those guys coming down a million miles an hour.

"He'll catch a punt with a guy in his face. He'll catch a punt that nobody else [will], and he probably has a great chance to take it to the house."

Carolina special teams coach Thomas McGaughey said McCaffrey has the "total package" as a returner.

"He makes his cuts at full speed, great ball security, vision ... everything you want in a returner he possesses it," he said.

And yes, McCaughey has seen the Kansas State return.

"He showed you everything he's made out of, being able to make his cuts at full speed, quickness, power, all those things you want in a returner, he displayed all that on that return," he said. "He has special abilities."