CHARLOTTE — Ray-Ray McCloud’s phone hummed with fresh text messages last week almost as soon as the Carolina Panthers picked up the former Clemson wide receiver after he was a late cut by the Buffalo Bills.
Former Tiger teammates and coaches chimed in.
“Glad to have you back home in Carolina.”
“We better see you more often.”
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney was succinct.
“Be a coffee bean.”
Swinney knew McCloud would recall motivational speaker Damon West’s talk at Clemson. Swinney invited the former convict to speak about his seven years in jail and West shared lessons he turned into a book, “The Coffee Bean.” He describes prison as a boiling pot of water containing three items: egg, carrot, coffee bean.
“The egg hardens. The carrot softens,” McCloud said. “The coffee beans spread. They spread energy.”
McCloud scooted through the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday in the Panthers’ season opener. He was one of the most positive aspects of a 30-27 loss at Bank of America Stadium: two punt returns for 24 yards, two kickoff returns for 51 yards in his first game in a teal-and-black jersey.
That’s way better than the Panthers were getting out of an anemic return game and just what general manager Marty Hurney had in mind.
“I did well but I can do better,” McCloud said. “I can get us better field position.”
This is one of those classically nice sports tales of good luck, what happens when hard work meets unexpected opportunity.
McCloud is lucky to have Swinney and Co. still looking out for him.
He’s luckier to have great parents.
Dad’s off-season program
The coffee was percolating Sunday in Charlotte.
The off-season alarm clock kept going off at 5:30 a.m., time for Ray-Ray McCloud III to wake up at his Tampa home and smell the workout routine.
It was supervised by his father. Ray McCloud Jr., aka Big Ray, knew his son had already had a nice stint at Clemson and a full NFL season with the Buffalo Bills. He knew success required more discipline.
“It was more off-the-field stuff,” Ray-Ray McCloud said. “I’ve been a good football player but I needed to change some things as far as doing a better job eating, sleeping, taking care of my body and sacrificing certain things.”
McCloud ate smaller, healthier portions during the day. The key, he said, is “not allowing myself to get really hungry.”
Proper hydration is important, too.
“Like right now,” McCloud said after a steamy Sunday afternoon workout in Charlotte. “I am not used to playing a football game in heat like this. I know I need a lot of water so I can come in Monday and be ready to go. Little stuff like that.”
Football runs in the McCloud family.
Ray McCloud Jr. has been a longtime Tampa-area youth coach.
Jordan McCloud is a redshirt freshman quarterback at South Florida, where he might have won the starting spot. Head coach Charlie Strong benched starter Blake Barnett in the third quarter of Saturday’s 14-10 loss at Georgia Tech and McCloud gave the Bulls a spark, completing four of five passes for 90 yards and a touchdown.
Strong planned to “reevaluate” before naming a starting quarterback for Saturday’s home game against S.C. State.
“He pushes me,” Ray-Ray said of Jordan.
Kobe McCloud is a high school quarterback in Tampa.
Lisa McCloud, the ultimate football mom and a nurse, celebrates the happiness of “God+ family + sports + shopping” on her Twitter page.
The N.C. State game
It’s not by chance that McCloud wound up with the Panthers a little more than a year after Buffalo picked him in the sixth round of the 2018 NFL draft. Hurney remembers a 2017 game in Raleigh when McCloud’s 77-yard punt return was Clemson’s first touchdown in a 38-31 victory over N.C. State.
“He’s got some pretty explosive return ability,” Hurney told reporters last week. “He brings a different skill set at returner as far as the ability to have some big returns.”
A good feeling about Charlotte can’t hurt.
McCloud’s last college game in the Carolinas was Clemson’s 38-3 romp over Miami in the 2017 ACC Championship Game at Bank of America Stadium. He caught six passes for 100 yards, rushed three times for six yards, returned two punts for 19 yards (and lost a fumble).
Early returns on his Panthers returns are encouraging:
• McCloud has started the season with a 12.0-yard average on two punt returns; the Panthers averaged 6.8 yards in 2018 (20th in the NFL).
• McCloud has two kickoff returns for a 25.5-yard average; the Panthers averaged 22.3 yards in 2018 (16th in the NFL).
A Buffalo Bills helmet sits inside the Bank of America Stadium locker reserved for No. 14 but this is a better fit, and not just geographically.
“Definitely,” McCloud said. “The coaches, the players, the whole team has really made me feel like I’ve been here a while. It’s not that I have to be wanted but I’m ready to take advantage of this great opportunity.”
Smells like good coffee.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff