Jason Vander Laan still remembers his first NFL minicamp three seasons ago.
“It was insane. I was so bad,” Vander Laan recalled after Sunday’s Panthers training camp. “So bad. Sooo bad. Looking back, it was so insane that I made it all the way through camp without getting cut.”
Vander Laan, now a 6-foot-4 backup tight end for Carolina, had never taken a snap at that position.
Rather than catching passes, Vander Laan was much more accustomed to throwing them. And pretty well, too: He was one of the best statistical quarterbacks in college football history.
“Started playing football in the fourth grade,” Vander Laan said, “and played quarterback my whole life.”
Coming from Frankfort, Ill., where he played defensive back and punter in addition to quarterback, Vander Laan ended up at Ferris State (Michigan).
He won the starting job as a freshman and put up numbers from the get-go. That first season, in 2012, he threw for almost 1,500 yards and 13 touchdowns and rushed for 1,338 yards and 16 more scores.
By his senior season — when he accounted for 2,625 yards passing, another 1,542 rushing, and 51 total touchdowns — Vander Laan had reset the NCAA record books. He finished his career as the first player in history to rush and pass for over 1,000 yards in four seasons, and with the college football record (at all levels) for most career rushing yards by a quarterback.
Plus, over that same period, he led Ferris State to the Division II playoffs twice.
“There’s definitely aspects of (playing quarterback) that I miss, but the requirements of an NFL quarterback are crazy,” Vander Laan said. “Coming from the system that I came, I’m very glad I transitioned to tight end.”
A complete switch
And now, in his third season, Vander Laan’s transition may finally be complete. While he played in four games with the Colts last season, primarily on special teams, he still hasn’t stuck as an NFL tight end.
To his credit, Vander Laan recognizes why he’s bounced from the Jets to the Colts and now to the Panthers.
“My biggest goal is always consistency,” he said. “You know, I can flash here or there, do well here or there, but overall, I think that’s why I’ve bounced around a little bit: I haven’t been consistent enough.”
Vander Laan also acknowledged that in the past, sometimes he’d get caught up in the numbers game of NFL training camp.
“My rookie year and even last year, I got caught up in looking at stuff, and you freak out and you lose time,” Vander Laan said. “You’ve just gotta learn the last thing you do is look at numbers.”
Focusing solely on his play has served the 25-year-old well this summer. After the team’s No. 2 tight end Chris Manhertz suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot in July and was placed on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, rookie tight end Ian Thomas rose into that backup role.
That left the No. 3 position — which the Panthers relied on heavily last season after Greg Olsen suffered his own Jones fracture — up for grabs. And Vander Laan has a chance to seize that role.
He has displayed more willingness (and ability) in blocking this summer, but given his athleticism, catching passes and running routes remain his clear strength. He almost came down with a leaping touchdown in the back of the end zone in Sunday’s practice but couldn’t quite corral it.
A winding journey
Either way, Vander Laan’s conversion from record-setting college quarterback to professional tight end is almost complete. It’s been a weird, winding, and at times, unforgiving, journey.
After all, remember where he started?
“Everything that came with being a tight end was just a foreign concept to me,” Vander Laan said. “Now that I’m coming into my third year playing tight end, I’m starting to get a lot more comfortable with the position: footwork, fundamentals, blocking, all that stuff.”
A quick pause, and then with a smile, he added one more thing:
“But every chance I get to throw the ball around, I’m gonna do it.”