After former Georgia running back Elijah Holyfield’s ran a 4.78-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine this spring, the deflation of his draft stock might as well have been punctuated by the whoosh of air exiting a balloon.
The drop seemed even more extreme after Holyfield’s 1,000-yard junior year in which he averaged almost 6.5 yards per carry using his powerful, churning running style, before declaring early for the draft.
But that 40-time ... On draft night last month, Holyfield watched seven rounds of picks melt away as his phone stayed silent.
Yet, where other teams saw a chance to pass on Holyfield, the Panthers saw an opportunity. Holyfield, a prospect they liked through the predraft process, was available as an undrafted free agent.
“I know he didn’t run a good 40-time, but when you put the tape on him, that’s really what we judged him on was his body of work. And it was pretty impressive,” said Carolina coach Ron Rivera after Friday’s opening session of rookie minicamp.
“I don’t think that (time) really speaks to who he is as a football player.”
Holyfield signed with the team last month. Then, he did 254 lower-body workout reps — one for each pick that passed him in the draft.
His decision to sign with the Panthers echoed the team’s own sense of opportunity. The Panthers are openly searching for a running back complement to third-year starter Christian McCaffrey. They drafted Florida’s Jordan Scarlett in the fifth round, re-signed longtime backup Cameron Artis-Payne to a one-year deal, and welcomed back a handful of former undrafted free agents to the 90-man roster this spring.
But after four years of healthy scratches and scattered carries, the Panthers already know who they have in Artis-Payne, after four years of healthy scratches and scattered carries. And because they haven’t moved the veteran into a more featured role, and drafted a running back, Holyfield is clearly in the running for the backup job.
The fact that his 40-time was so widely discussed throughout the predraft process adds even more juice to his step.
“I’m always motivated, but it’s a little extra motivation to come out and show others what they think I can’t do,” he said. “I’m just here to play football now.”
Holyfield has a competitor’s background — starting with his father, four-time heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield.
“He’s been really supportive,” the younger Holyfield said. “I’m excited that he’s excited.”
Holyfield traveled his father’s path when he was younger, spending six years in a boxing gym while also playing football. He said the boxing workouts and sparring helped him understand how to win one-on-one matchups on the field, and develop mental toughness.
But ultimately football became Holyfield’s calling.
“At some point, I was just like ‘Ah, I don’t want to get hit that much,’” he laughed.
“...I just tried to find my own way, and I found it in football.”