The offense was practicing against air and players wore short and jerseys, with no helmets or pads.
But it was clear that first-round pick Christian McCaffrey was the star of the Panthers’ rookie minicamp practice Friday – wherever he lined up.
McCaffrey, the do-it-all back from Stanford, took most of his reps out of the backfield eight days after the Panthers took him with the No. 8 overall pick. But offensive coordinator Mike Shula later split McCaffrey out wide, and he pulled in several catches from fourth-string quarterback Garrett Gilbert and tryout QB David Ash.
“Just trying to be me,” McCaffrey said. “Just show them everything I can do.”
McCaffrey’s initial burst and quickness have never been in question. But seeing it in person made an impression on a number of participants and onlookers.
“That dude’s fast. I saw him in the huddle. I said, ‘Man, it feels good to be in this huddle with you,’ ” former Charlotte 49ers wideout Austin Duke said. “That dude’s good. He can do it all.”
No one got a chance to try to wrap up the 5-foot-11, 202-pound McCaffrey on Friday, and there won’t be any tackling drills Saturday, either.
Former Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware wasn’t complaining.
“That would be hard,” said Boulware, laughing. “We’ll see. We’ll probably find out in the next couple of days. That will probably be the hardest thing I have to do.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera laughed when a reporter mentioned that McCaffrey stands out among the 57 players at minicamp.
"Yes, he does. He and (second-round receiver Curtis) Samuel both look different," Rivera said. "They've got a tremendous amount of ability and that's an exciting for what we want to do on offense. ... We're just scratching the surface."
McCaffrey is trying to pack as much as he can into this weekend, which will be his only official team activity until June.
McCaffrey is no longer enrolled at Stanford. But because the school is on the quarter system, he isn’t allowed to work out or be at the Panthers’ facilities until June 9, when classes end.
McCaffrey signed his contract Friday, a four-year deal worth an estimated $17.3 million, with a $10.7 million signing bonus. He celebrated by going to bed.
“I signed, tried to get some sleep and get ready for this,” McCaffrey said. “Never get comfortable.”
McCaffrey said veteran running backs Jonathan Stewart and Fozzy Whittaker have given him some pointers. It also helps that his Stanford position coach, Lance Taylor, is now on the Panthers’ staff.
“Just seeing him out here’s funny. We’re just in different colors,” McCaffrey said of Taylor, Rivera’s new receivers coach. “It’s a blast. We have a lot of fun. And I’m just excited to continue learning from him.”
And McCaffrey has a pretty good sounding board back home in Castle Rock, Colo. His father, Ed McCaffrey, was an NFL receiver for 13 years and won three Super Bowls before retiring in 2004, when Christian was 7.
“It’s awesome. It’s a huge advantage. I get to pick his brain all the time,” McCaffrey said. “He’s been through the good, the bad and the ugly. For me I just look at it as a learning experience. My family’s really, really close. While we try to teach each other stuff, we mess around just like any other family. And I love them.”
McCaffrey’s parents -- mother Lisa was a soccer standout at Stanford -- accompanied him to Charlotte last week after he was drafted. He returned home for a few days, then flew back to Charlotte for minicamp.
He plans to train in Colorado during the Panthers’ organized team activities, during which he’s allowed to communicate with the team via Skype. McCaffrey says he’ll talk with veterans and try to replicate the OTA practices.
“I’ll have the playbook and I’ll be able to train, too,” he said. “I can just find out what they’re doing and rep it exactly how they do it.”
What McCaffrey did Friday was offer a glance of the many hats he’ll wear in the Panthers’ offense. He lined up behind center, alongside the quarterbacks when they were in shotgun, and out wide.
He mostly carried the ball, but showed good hands when making receptions -- both out of the backfield and when used as a receiver. All of it was done with precision.
“He’s sharp, very sharp. Everything is crisp,” said Duke, who signed with Carolina as an undrafted free agent.
“Just seeing him out there catching the balls and running, just the little glimpse I had of him, he was sharp and crisp and on point,” Duke added. “He looked really great.”
McCaffrey is wearing No. 22, his first jersey number as a 7-year-old for the Douglas County Dolphins. He wants to look around to find a place to live, but hasn’t had time.
He was asked whether he’s been recognized much in Charlotte.
“I haven’t been around town much, so I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll see.”
There’s a lot more to see where McCaffrey is concerned. But Friday represented an enticing -- and fast -- first look.