Carolina Panthers rookie linebacker Ben Boulware loves former Clemson teammate Deshaun Watson.
Boulware included Watson in a group text of ex-Tigers last week and refers to the Houston Texans rookie quarterback as one of his dogs.
And yet if Boulware finds himself with a shot on Watson in Wednesday’s NFL exhibition at Bank of America Stadium, he has no plans to play nice.
“No, not at all. I’ll give him a hug and a kiss after. But I would put everything into that hit,” Boulware said this week.
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“That’s three-and-a-half years of waiting to hit somebody, and I’ll put all three years into one hit,” he added. “Hopefully he’d feel it. But he’d probably juke me out, honestly. He’s a pretty good athlete. But no, I would not lay off at all.”
Wednesday’s exhibition represents the first NFL game for Watson and Boulware, two of the emotional leaders on a Tigers team that won the national championship last season and played for it the year before.
They were on opposite ends of the draft spectrum in April.
Watson, a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist, was the 12th overall pick after the Texans traded up 13 spots to get him. Boulware signed with the Panthers as an undrafted free agent after going the entire weekend without hearing his name called.
Watson is battling Tom Savage to be the Texans’ Week 1 starter.
Boulware is competing with Zeek Bigger and several other young linebackers for one of the Panthers’ final roster spots.
But there’s a chance the two will be on the field together Wednesday, when Watson and Texans reserve QB Brandon Weeden will play behind Savage. Only this time, Watson will be fair game for Boulware and every other defender.
“If you even breathed on him during practice, coach (Dabo) Swinney would pull your scholarship,” Boulware said. “Never had the opportunity to do it. Hopefully come Wednesday I get in the game while he’s in there and I’ll try my best.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera is looking forward to seeing Watson, whom he thought deserved the Heisman last year over Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson.
“I’m a big fan of his, a fan of Clemson and what they’ve done the last two years. If I had a chance for a Heisman vote, I’d have given it to him,” Rivera said. “I think what he’s done in two years with that program was tremendous.
“It’s going to be fun to watch. We’re going to do everything we can to make it difficult on the young guy when he’s out there.”
Adjusting to the NFL
Watson says the speed of the game is faster in the NFL than college, but he’s not really worried about it.
“Guys are knowing what to do. They’re operating and communicating better so they’re being able to react quicker,” Watson told Houston reporters. “But for me, it’s just football. I’m just going out there having fun. This is what I love to do, so I don’t worry about the speed or anything. I just worry about my job.”
Boulware also is adjusting to the NFL, but was pleased to hear this week that Rivera called him a smart player.
“That’s what I wanted to prove. I think everyone knows I know the game of football,” he said. “Obviously I’m not the biggest guy out there or the fastest. But I know football. I know how to manage the game out there. I know how to be the quarterback of the defense.”
Boulware also knows enough to keep the veterans happy. He and Bigger have been charged with keeping the linebackers’ meeting room well-stocked with snacks and drinks. Boulware also has to carry Thomas Davis’ helmet and shoulder pads to the locker room after every practice at Wofford.
Boulware said he had to buy “a stupid amount of Starbucks coffee” for the vets.
“They’re all like old. TD’s like a grown man with kids. So he has to drink coffee. So we got so much coffee,” Boulware said. “And I was like, ‘Dude, you’re literally going to have to go to the bathroom every five minutes at practice.’
“TD’s really the one that’s the enforcer. You’ve got to do stuff for TD to keep him happy. Luke doesn’t really care. If TD’s happy, the room’s happy.”
Boulware isn’t like most undrafted players who are just happy to get a shot.
Boulware has a ton of confidence, not surprising given that he won the Jack Lambert Award last year as the nation’s top linebacker and was named the defensive MVP of the national title game after his 10-tackle performance against Alabama.
He says he’s “very confident” he’ll make the 53-man roster, but knows he still has a lot of work to do. That work extends to his grooming: Boulware says he needs some beard oil to stay a step ahead of defensive tackle Star Lotulelei for best beard on the team.
“I think mine has more character. His is just like, bleh,” Boulware said.
“I’m like the hot ugly guy. Like I’m pretty ugly, but this makes you look pretty hot. This adds character. I’m probably one of the hottest ugly guys on the team just because this bad boy right here.”