CHARLOTTE — Damiere Byrd lined up to the far right, and at the snap of the ball turned and ran toward the quarterback. Derek Anderson handed off to fullback Rickie Brockel, who in turn flipped the ball to Byrd, charging in the opposite direction at near full speed. The former South Carolina receiver turned the corner, and gained 20 yards on the reverse play before being shoved out of bounds.
It may have been a play run by the second-team offense during a steaming hot day of mini-camp, but it earned robust applause from coaches and the approving drone of “Byyyyyyyyyyyrd” coming from starters watching the action. And it was just the kind of impression the former Gamecock hopes to make as he vies for a spot on the Carolina Panthers’ roster.
“Making plays, it’s always a great feeling. Being in the situation I’m in, every play matters,” said Byrd, who came to the Panthers as an undrafted free agent. “Every snap is another opportunity to try to stand out from everybody else.”
Byrd’s senior season at USC was far from his best. The New Jersey native finished with 13 receptions for 308 yards, the lowest yardage total of his final three seasons in Columbia. He attracted the attention of scouts on South Carolina’s pro day, when he was credited with an unofficial 40-yard time of 4.25 seconds, as well as a vertical leap of 42 inches. The Panthers were in contact with him before and during the draft, and his agent felt the Charlotte was his best NFL fit.
His pro day performance “did a lot” as far as getting him noticed, Byrd said. As for his lackluster final season at USC — he believes there’s always someone left on the outside during a struggling season like the Gamecocks’ 7-6 campaign of a year ago.
“I don’t think it was the last season that I expected,” said Byrd, who had 575 receiving yards as a junior. “But football, sometimes it goes that way. Sometimes you have better years when you’re younger rather than when you’re older. That’s just kind of the way the season went. Nobody expected us to be 6-6 (in the regular season), and with those losses, some people lose stats here and there.”
The Panthers represent a new start. The 5-9, 170-pound Byrd has always been known for his speed, and Carolina is trying to exploit it by using him in a number of different roles. Over the course of one mini-camp session in the shadow of Bank of America Stadium — where his old college team will open the season Sept. 3 against North Carolina — Byrd lined up outside, in the slot, and also as a kick returner, something he did only sparingly during his days at USC.
“I’ve been all over,” he said. “I’m being utilized in a lot of different roles.”
All of which gives Byrd more of an opportunity to showcase himself. For an undrafted free agent trying to get noticed, it’s all about taking advantage when those opportunities arrive, according to Panthers head coach Ron Rivera.
“The young man flashed today, did some really good things,” Rivera said. “And he has flashes. He flashed his quickness and speed. The thing you want to see with these young guys is what they do when they get the opportunity. And that’s what it will be for him when he gets his opportunity in training camp, when he gets his opportunity in the preseason games. You want to see him flash. And we’ll have him play, and he’ll also have an opportunity to return punts and kicks, and see what he can do there as well.”
An undrafted free agent can make an impact in the NFL, as Corey “Philly” Brown showed last season in emerging as Carolina’s top speed receiver. But the Panthers’ receiving corps is a crowded one — Brown is back, as is Ted Ginn Jr., joining holdovers Kelvin Benjamin and Jerricho Cotchery, and second-round draft pick Devin Funchess from Michigan.
Byrd is likely competing for one of the final receiving spots on the Panthers’ roster along with former Wofford wideout Brenton Bersin — who made an acrobatic touchdown catch in mini-camp that had quarterback Cam Newton whooping with delight — and free agent Stephen Hill, a former second-round draft pick out of Georgia Tech whom Rivera called one of the most pleasant surprises of the preseason.
Somewhere in there, Byrd will try to find his niche. “It will definitely be a tough competition,” he said. It will heat up in more ways than one next month, when the Panthers converge on Spartanburg for training camp. But the former Gamecocks receiver believes he’s getting a fair chance, which is all he can ask for.
“Definitely,” he said. “Coming in as an undrafted free agent, you know you’re not going to get as many reps as maybe you’re used to or you might think. But I do feel like I’m getting adequate reps, and I do have an opportunity.”