SPARTANBURG — As Colby Cameron opens the door to Wofford’s Student Life Building, he sees somebody walking several yards behind him. So he holds the door and waits.
You don’t have to do that, I tell him. You’re a star.
“I’m not a star,” Cameron says.
Cameron is Carolina’s fourth-team quarterback.
“You grow up your whole life watching the NFL and now you’re actually here,” says Cameron, a rookie who grew up in Southern California and played at Louisiana Tech. “I think it’s a pretty big deal no matter if you’re first string or fourth string.”
The difference between being first team and fourth team is vast. Fans scream for starting quarterback Cam Newton’s autograph when he walks off the field. Cameron doesn’t hear many fans scream and when he does they usually say, “No. 16, can we have your autograph?”
Newton does an interview in the Student Life Center and 20 members of the media encompass him. Fifteen yards away Cameron talks. He gets one of us.
The Panthers run a 9-on-7 drill and Newton gets his repetitions, and then Derek Anderson and then Jimmy Clausen. When it’s Cameron’s turn, the drill ends.
“Obviously you get less reps but still every day you come in and try to work and learn something,” he says.
At Louisiana Tech last season Cameron broke Russell Wilson’s NCAA record for passes thrown without an interception (379). Cameron threw 428 without an interception last season and 444 in his career. He won the Sammy Baugh Award last season as college football’s best passer. (Wilson, the former N.C. State quarterback, set the previous record as a senior at Wisconsin.)
Despite the limited reps, Cameron is a natural. As he stands on Newton’s left during mini-camp, Newton sticks his arm in the air and points to the names on the back of their jerseys: “Cameron Newton.”
Cameron plays, too. Joe Adams runs a corner route at practice last week and Cameron hits him with a pretty pass in the left corner of the end zone.
“Oh, yeah,” says Ken Dorsey, Carolina’s quarterback coach and a former Miami Hurricanes’ star. “We look at every rep he takes. We definitely try to teach him off that. A testament to Colby is that when he’s not in there he wants to know every play. He wants to know what the route is so he can go through it in his head.”
Nobody keeps four quarterbacks. What are his options?
“You get out there and do everything you can and who knows,” says Dorsey. “You’ve seen it a million times in this league. I really believe he’s got every opportunity to make a roster, be it ours or anybody else’s.”
Fourth-team quarterbacks can become starters. One of them has thrown for more yards than any player in Panthers history.
Undrafted out of Louisiana-Lafayette, Jake Delhomme played for New Orleans from 1997-2002. He was on the practice squad. He was twice sent to NFL Europe. Who’s that on the end of the bench? It’s him.
“In ’98 and ’99 I was a camp arm,” Delhomme says from Breaux Bridge, La., where he grew up and still lives, raising and racing thoroughbreds.
How do you become more than an arm?
“You do whatever you have to do,” says Delhomme, 38. “You throw with receivers after practice. You hold the dummy for special teams. It’s not brown-nosing. It’s trying to catch somebody’s eye. I was king of the 9-on-7drill. When they see you in the individual drills, they’re not afraid to throw you in a game.”
When you do play, you have to get it right.
“So if somebody whiffs on a block or runs the wrong route,” Delhomme says.
Delhomme played in six games in five seasons in New Orleans and started two. Yet the Panthers and Dallas Cowboys saw enough to court him in 2003. He signed with Carolina and played 91 games. The lone game in which he played but failed to start was his first.
It was the 2003 opener at home against Jacksonville. Delhomme replaced Rodney Peete at halftime. The Panthers trailed 17-0.
If you were there, you still remember, and when you think about it, you smile. The second half was one of the most exhilarating in team history. There were interceptions and touchdowns, mainly touchdowns. The third and final touchdown pass came on fourth down, with 16 seconds remaining. Ricky Proehl, now Carolina’s wide receivers coach, caught it, and the Panthers won 24-23.
The opportunity to experience what Delhomme did is why fourth-team quarterbacks do everything but brown nose.
“OK. This just happened,” Delhomme remembers thinking after the game. He went home to his wife, Keri, and their infant daughter, Lauren. They likely watched Baby Einstein.
“I probably had a beer,” says Delhomme.
He adds: “The biggest thing was I couldn’t wait to get to work the next morning. Tampa Bay was coming in, and they had won the Super Bowl. I knew I could do more.”
Delhomme’s school, Louisiana-Lafayette, is 180 miles from Cameron’s school, Louisiana Tech.
You know who Delhomme is?
“Yup,” says Cameron.
If a receiver wants to run routes after practice, Cameron will find him. He rarely leaves when his teammates do.
Does he hold the door open for the quarterbacks’ coach, too?
“He’s a good guy,” Dorsey says. “You love being around him because he’s a sponge, because of all the questions he asks. He’s really eager to learn. That work ethic does not go unnoticed.”