SPARTANBURG Training camp scuffles are good because they create camaraderie, allow coaches to believe that their practices are tough and give me something to write about.
When a scuffle breaks out in Spartanburg, I save time by looking for cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.
“Captain’s a unique individual,” says Panther coach Ron Rivera. “He’s kind of a defensive Steve Smith.”
“Little and mean?” I ask.
“Yes,” says Rivera. “A little attitude.”
Smith is 5-9, Munnerlyn 5-8. Smith runs a pretty route angling toward the right sideline early this week, catches a pass in front of Munnerlyn and appears to give the Captain a forearm. Munnerlyn, maturing in this, his fourth season, appears to wait a third of a second before giving one back.
They square off. Middle linebacker Jon Beason steps in and separates them.
Who started it?
“Steve,” Munnerlyn says. “But he’ll say I did.”
“Steve said some words to me, that I held him and tried to get the ball out,” says Munnerlyn, 24. “That play actually got my practice going and I had a much better day. I was fired up and I was ready to make some plays and get my Steve Smith on, and if I caught an interception, I was going to spin the ball.”
Spinning the ball, of course, is Smith’s trademark.
Munnerlyn talks Friday and, as always, is gracious. To coax him out of his shell, however, you have to ask the right question. “How you doin’?” usually works.
Grace ends when the whistle blows. Munnerlyn practices as if you did something unethical to him, or are about to.
Here he comes on a blitz earlier this week, all 190 pounds of him, and here comes 235-pound running back Jonathan Stewart to stop him. Munnerlyn keeps coming and Stewart keeps trying to stop him and there’s shoving and pushing and…
Let me guess. Stewart was holding.
“Yeah, he was,” says Munnerlyn. “It’s part of football. We got up in each other’s face and did a little shoving. Coach Rivera is trying to make us smarter players. So he’s saying when things like that happen, Captain, you have to let the ref determine the call or just walk off. I was like, ‘Coach, you know its practice, there’s no ref out there.’ So I’m going to get the last push.”
As they stretch before practice the next evening, Munnerlyn and Stewart still debated who is at fault.
Says Munnerlyn: “I said you were holding me, and he said you being a little extra, and I said it’s OK I have that extra-ness in me sometimes.”
That extra-ness has always been there.
“It’s just the personality, man,” says Munnerlyn, who grew up small in a tough neighborhood in Mobile, Ala. “I’ve always been like that. I’ve never been scared of contact, I’ve never been scared of anybody, especially when it comes down to football. It’s just something in me. I don’t know if being a small guy that’s why, like they say me and Steve (Smith) probably have Little Man Syndrome. It’s just something that’s always been in me and I’m kind of happy I got it.”
First week of his freshman season at South Carolina, Munnerlyn lines up against 6-4 Sidney Rice, a sophomore who, unlike Munnerlyn, had redshirted. Big man, about to be a big star and Munnerlyn, straight out of Murphy high school, is all over him, right off the line of scrimmage.
Munnerlyn goes after a ball carrier during a previous training camp and encounters an offensive lineman.
“Yeah, 300 pounds,” says Munnerlyn. “I can’t remember his name.”
Munnerlyn brings his forearm up to assist with the block. The big man treats Munnerlyn as if he is a tent stake and drives him into the ground.
Next play Munnerlyn flings himself at the lineman, just throws his body into him.
“No, I wasn’t nervous,” Munnerlyn says. “He kind of got me fired. When he gets me in the mode of fire-up, I just go.”
Among the biggest players in Panthers’ history is 345-pound tackle Jeff Otah.
You ever mix it up with him?
“Probably,” says Munnerlyn.
Munnerlyn’s pursuit of fairness and justice also has led to altercations with opponents.
Last season Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder scrambles and Munnerlyn sees receiver Percy Harvin and blocks him of bounds – and more out of bounds and all the way to the Carolina bench.
Harvin grabs Munnerlyn’s facemask and throws him to the ground and Munnerlyn comes back at him and Harvin is penalized for a personal foul and, later, fined $7,500.
Munnerlyn is neither penalized nor fined.
See, Jonathan Stewart. It is the other guy’s fault.
The Panthers selected Munnerlyn in the seventh round of the 2009 draft and have taken at least one cornerback in the three drafts since.
He started four games as a rookie, five his second season and 14 in 2011 before he injured his left hamstring.
Defensive backs were relentlessly criticized by fans and the media last season, Munnerlyn more than anybody. And he was beaten. But he often played a new position, nickel back. And the pass rush, which was at best occasional, worked against the defensive backs.
Coach Rivera, are you comfortable with Munnerlyn as your starter?
“Yes, I am,” Rivera says Friday.
Rivera praises Munnerlyn’s work in camp. But he won’t say Munnerlyn will start opposite Chris Gamble.
“It’s a…competition,” says Rivera.
Munnerlyn won’t give up the job without a fight.