Carolina Panthers linebacker David Mayo went from a junior college player living in a shed in the backyard of a woman’s house in Santa Monica, Calif., to potentially starting at linebacker in the NFL this weekend, in a game crucial to the team’s playoff push.
Mayo, 24, could fill in for veteran linebacker Thomas Davis this Sunday against Tampa Bay, if linebacker Shaq Thompson (plantar fasciitis) is still unable to play. Davis was suspended for two games by the NFL for a hit on Green Bay receiver Davante Adams last week, but had the suspension reduced on appeal to one game.
The responsibility put on Carolina’s linebackers is enormous, especially under first-year defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who is blitzing on over 40 percent of pass plays. That extra rusher means more space is left for Luke Kuechly, Davis and Shaq Thompson to cover.
“Well, the standard is really high in our room,” Mayo said Wednesday. “Especially these guys who set the tone every day. But it makes me better. ... I’ve definitely got to step up and play the game the way it needs to be played.”
Cushy, the role is not. But it still beats the heck out of that 10-foot-by-15-foot shed, where Mayo resided for six months in 2011 to save money as he worked his way toward a scholarship at Texas State.
“I mean, it was basically a storage shed,” he said. “It had a bed, it had like a little storage thing to hang my clothes. Cement floors, plywood walls. No electricity, no insulation.”
Mayo approached that the same way he approaches any situation now: Even-keel, a day at a time, and willing to sacrifice for the big picture.
“He’s a guy who is not going to ask questions if you need him to do something. He’s just going to do it,” said linebacker Ben Jacobs, whose locker is next to Mayo’s and who sits next to him in meetings.
“He’ll step up whether it’s on defense or special teams, and sometimes he’ll do both. Sometimes you’ll notice in a game he has to play double time, defense and special teams, and there are no questions asked by him. He’s like, ‘All right, let’s do it,’ no matter how tired he is. If we need him in the spot, he’s going to go in and do a hell of a job.”
Mayo filled in for Luke Kuechly at middle linebacker earlier this season when Kuechly was in the concussion protocol. That was when Thompson noticed that things were really clicking for Mayo.
“David took a huge step,” said Thompson. “He’s able to control a defense. He’s able to control a game and get everybody lined up, and calm the waters when it gets a little rough. That’s what I see a lot of in him.”
Thompson was limited in practice on Wednesday, but the unpredictable nature of his foot injury makes it hard to know whether he’ll play Sunday.
Mayo and Jacobs are both expecting a frequent rotation, with some big nickel featuring safety Colin Jones if Thompson can’t play. Jones’ play in the nickel was solid against Green Bay, and he came away with an interception.
Carolina will miss Davis regardless of how well his replacement plays. Teammates were frustrated by his suspension.
“We know Thomas as a person,” Jacobs said. “That’s what kind of makes it hard, when you see those things that people say about him, saying he’s a dirty player and he’s this and that. He’s not those things. People, they think they know something just because of what they watch. Just because you watch the game doesn’t mean you know these guys, doesn’t mean you know who they are. A lot of these guys are completely different people from who they are on the field.”
Rivera said he felt the league made the decision based on what it thought was best.
“I appreciate the fact that they cut it down to one game,” Rivera said. “I don’t think Thomas is a dirty player. I think Thomas is a physical player. He’s a hitter.
“He’s a guy who plays through his contact, and unfortunately in this situation, he caught a guy, and pretty good too. Back in the day, that was good. But I understand in today’s climate, what we’re trying to do with taking those types of hits out of the game, I get that part of it too.”
Defensive end Wes Horton, while disappointed in the suspension of his teammate, chooses to see the silver lining of Davis’ situation.
“He’s going to come (back) fired up,” he said. “I mean, he’s fired up every week. He sets the tone here in the locker room before games, getting the defense fired up. He’s a veteran leader that we depend on, big time.”