The journey ahead of Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware could be like his signature ginger beard: It’s long, unique to Boulware himself, and will sometimes get a little gnarly.
And like his viking-hipster-hybrid facial hair, Boulware wears his bottom-of-the-barrel status as a Carolina Panthers undrafted free agent well.
He will face rounds of cuts and few available roster spots by early September, when the team must trim from 90 players to 53, but the combination of Boulware’s athletic talent and refreshing personality gives Panthers fans at least 10 reasons to root for him to make the roster.
1. He was so excited to get to Charlotte on Thursday to be fitted for his team gear, that he arrived an hour and a half early and took a nap in his car in the parking lot.
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“Well, I didn’t know what else to do!” Boulware said with a chuckle after his first rookie minicamp session at Bank of America Stadium Friday afternoon.
“I knew I was two hours away, I knew the Greenville (South Carolina) traffic might be bad, and then Charlotte traffic might be worse. And I thought, ‘I’m not going to be late the first day.’ So I left at like 7 a.m., just took a nap in my car. ...I just kind of chilled.”
2. He has a chip on his shoulder.
Boulware wasn’t drafted - “I don’t know why,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera commented with a shrug after the draft - and he is motivated by the snub. But Boulware isn’t letting that distract him from the task ahead.
“It’s all good, it is what it is,” he said. “I absolutely wanted to get drafted. But I didn’t. You can’t really fret or get (angry) about it, because there is nothing I can do about it. And it’s in the past. All I can really do is make the most of my situation here.”
3. Undrafted free agent? No way.
“I guess I was the Panthers’ eighth-round pick this year,” Boulware said with a grin.
Obviously I’m going to try to make the team...but I will play special teams, I’ll be the tackling dummy, whatever it is. I’m just trying to make the 53-man.
Former Clemson linebacker and Panthers undrafted free agent Ben Boulware
4. UDFA’s - er, eighth-round picks - get the flexibility to choose which team they sign with, after receiving multiple calls from multiple teams after the draft. Boulware chose to join the Panthers, though they are deep at linebacker with starters Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson and their backups.
“(I came here) to learn behind two of the best linebackers in the game right now: Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis,” he said. “I feel like that was the perfect opportunity to learn and grow as a player. I feel like it’s a good market for me, being two hours away from my home. I feel like I can make the team. They need playmakers in this league, and that’s what I do.”
5. He hasn’t had that ‘I made it’ moment yet.
“No, I haven’t had that,” he said. “Because I haven’t made it yet. I know there’s not really any security in being a free agent. I have to work my butt off. There’s only 53 spots and there are a lot of guys here.”
6. Though he won the national championship with Clemson just a few months ago, Boulware understands his current standing and knows it’ll take hard work to climb his way up the roster.
“I know Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are better than me,” he said. “I’m not going to lie and say that I am going to try to take their starting job, because there’s no way in hell I’m going to.”
7. That means he’s ready to contribute any way he can. Literally.
“I’m honestly going to be ready for any opportunity that comes up,” he said. “Obviously I’m going to try to make the team...but I will play special teams, I’ll be the tackling dummy, whatever it is. I’m just trying to make the 53-man.”
8. He’s eager to start from the bottom.
“I’m up for it, I’ve done it before,” he said. “Going from a pretty highly-recruited high school player to not doing nothing as a freshman (at Clemson), playing special teams, I’m sure it’s going to be the same role this year. But it is what it is. It’s the role I’ve been placed in and the opportunity I’ve been given, so I’m just going to make the most of it.”
9. He’s a Panthers super fan.
“Luke (Kuechly) actually texted me the day before I got here, just kind of welcoming me to the organization,” Boulware said. “That was so cool. I was totally a fan, I screen-shot it and showed it to all my friends. But it’s Luke Kuechly. I’m not going to try to be a fan and kiss his butt or anything, but he’s one of the best players in the game now, so that was a pretty cool feeling.”
Boulware also met quarterback Cam Newton and had a similar reaction.
“Cam came up to me yesterday and dapped me up (meaning Newton fist-bumped Boulware),” Boulware said giddily. “I was like, ‘That’s pretty cool. Cam Newton dapped me up!’ ”
10. When asked if he thinks his new teammates have seen the viral video of him throwing a German suplex wrestling move on an opposing player last fall, he was hopeful.
“I hope a lot of them (have seen it),” he said. “I hope a lot of them don't think I'm a scrub. I know I'm going to pay my dues, but man, I'm a decent player! I'm solid! I think I've earned the right to be here. So, I hope they've seen it. I feel like that was a pretty cool play.”