Carolina Panthers

UNC receiver Austin Proehl has a clear route to NFL — in his father's footsteps

UNC WR Austin Proehl, son of former Panther, speaks after pro day

UNC receiver Austin Proehl, the son of former Panthers WR Ricky Proehl, had his pro day Tuesday ahead of the upcoming NFL Draft.
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UNC receiver Austin Proehl, the son of former Panthers WR Ricky Proehl, had his pro day Tuesday ahead of the upcoming NFL Draft.

There went Austin Proehl again, zipping from one half of the football field to the other.

He'd sprint off the line, stop, cut one way or the other, then leap high or dive low to snag passes at North Carolina's pro day on Tuesday. As he went through his wide receiver workout, some 20 NFL scouts, including one from the Carolina Panthers, jotted down notes from the sideline.

Standing right with them was Austin's dad, Ricky, a former Carolina Panthers player and assistant coach. Or at least, he was standing with the scouts for parts of his son's workouts. At other times, he hopped right onto the field with Austin, lining up like a pseudo-defensive back.

You know, just dad stuff.

Except in their case, it's more than a typical father-son relationship. It's a kid trying to follow in his father's footsteps without ... well, following exactly in his father's footsteps.

"There's a lot of anxiety — it's your son," Ricky Proehl, a 17-year NFL veteran, said after UNC's pro day ended. "You know, when you're out there doing it, it's a lot easier, but when you know what's at stake, it's tough as a dad."

But for Austin, a Charlotte native and Providence High graduate, the toughest part of his journey to the NFL is just beginning.

The name 'Proehl' and the NFL

There's hardly anyone better to teach Proehl about the rigors of the NFL than his father.

Ricky Proehl was a third-round draft pick of the then-Phoenix Cardinals back in 1990. He led the team in receptions as a rookie and established himself as a legitimate pro receiver, even given his 6-foot, 190-pound frame.

His career took him from Arizona to Seattle, Chicago to St. Louis, and eventually to Charlotte, where he played three seasons for the Panthers in the early 2000's. He never recorded a 1,000-yard season, nor did he ever score more than seven touchdowns in one year, but he carved out an NFL role for himself nonetheless.

"The National Football League, it's the best of the best," Ricky Proehl said. "The standard is high. Austin's gotta know that when you do step between the lines, it's 100 percent every time."

'What this game means to me'

North Carolina wide receiver Austin Proehl’s pro day in Chapel Hill came under the watchful eye of pro scouts – and his father, former NFL player and assistant coach Ricky Proehl. Robert Willett

So, what are Austin Proehl's chances of carving out an NFL career like his dad?

It depends. After a junior season with the Tar Heels catching balls from current Chicago Bears QB Mitch Trubisky, Austin seemed poised for a massive leap in playing time and playmaking as a senior.

Then the season happened.

Austin started out well, notching eight catches for 120 yards against Louisville (and cornerback prospect Jaire Alexander, also a Charlotte native) in the second game of the season. But against Duke, he broke his collarbone, ending any hopes of a breakout senior year. He returned for UNC's final two games, proving his toughness in the process, but he finished with just 21 catches for 337 yards and a touchdown.

"From the moment I got out of surgery, I wanted to make a comeback. I wanted to play ball," Austin said. "It showed a lot of teams what this game means to me."

'You've just got to be you'

Since the end of the season, Proehl's focus — and therefore his father's, too — has been on NFL draft training. They've been camped out in Southern California for much of the past three months, perfecting Proehl's game.

At 5-foot-10, 175-pounds, he isn't as physically imposing as some other receiver prospects, but he does have skills that translate to the NFL.

North Carolina wide receiver Austin Proehl’s speed, route-running and versatility, on display Tuesday in Chapel Hill, could earn him an NFL shot, even if he goes undrafted. Robert Willett

Proehl posted a 40-yard dash in the low 4.4-second range at a regional combine in Tampa , so he has NFL speed. He also has quickness, plus he is a strong route-runner and aggressive receiver — rather than letting the ball come to him, he extends his fingers and attacks the ball in the air.

Any one of those things could be the one that earns Proehl his NFL shot.

"It's not any scientific method where you have to do this or that to get teams to fall in love with you," he Proehl said. "You've just got to be you and do what you do best. For me, that's running — my speed, my quickness — and my routes, my hands, my ability to make plays."

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It's also being willing to do anything to make it. Proehl caught punts at the end of his workout Tuesday. The punt work showed his potential as a return man, like former UNC star and current Dallas Cowboy, Ryan Switzer.

Proehl is reminiscent of Switzer, his father said, and could have a similar NFL role. .

"He's going to be labeled as a guy that can play in the slot, and there's nothing wrong with that," he said. "I think the best thing for him is those guys — Sterling Shepard, Cole Beasley, Danny Amendola, Switzer — and the success they've had. There's a need for that position."

Up next: Private workouts

For now, Austin will keep refining his game. He's scheduled for a private workout with the Panthers later this week, as well as a number of other workouts and physicals.

Proehl said he knows his pro day, which he admitted was shaky, with several errant and dropped passes — wasn't the end of his journey. Rather, he's just getting started.

"Everybody says this is a sign of relief. It's not. It don't stop now," he said. "It's one of those things where you still have to meet with teams, you still have to work out, and it doesn't end until you get a phone call. And even then it doesn't end.

"Then you've gotta go perform."

And what about his father? Well, he'll keep supporting his son as he always has, whether he's drafted or not.

Most mock drafts have him Proehl going unselected — but the things he's learning from his father are what could help him stick with a team.

"I'm hard on him. I jump his butt, I get on him," his father said. "I say, 'This isn't personal, you can get (mad) at me, but this is me trying to teach you what it takes to be great.' I'm not a coach or a dad who sugarcoats.

"At the end of the day, it doesn't matter where he gets drafted or what happens. He's going to get an opportunity, and he's got to make the most of it."

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889; @brendanrmarks