Before he hung up the phone following an interview with the Observer, Central Michigan head coach Jim McElwain had a request regarding his former player, Jordan Scarlett — who McElwain suspended twice while both were at the University of Florida.
“If you do get a chance to talk to him, tell him I’m rooting for him, man,” McElwain said. “I hope he does well.”
The NFL is known for its willingness to give second chances. Whether some of its recipients deserve one is subjective; but the people who know Jordan Scarlett say he deserves his.
The Panthers rookie wasn’t the best-known name selected during the 2019 NFL Draft, when Carolina made him the 154th overall pick. His tape showed a running back with a rare blend of speed (4.47-second 40-yard dash) and strength (465-pound max bench press) that the league generally drools over. But his 1,846 yards and 12 touchdowns over three seasons weren’t as flashy as some of the other backs taken before him.
He slipped into the fifth round, however, partly due to his yearlong suspension as a junior at Florida in 2017 for theft by credit card fraud. Scarlett opted for a pre-trial diversion program to expunge the felony charge from his record and was welcomed back to the team by new head coach Dan Mullen for the 2018 season. Still, it was the second disciplinary suspension of Scarlett’s collegiate career — the first stemming from misdemeanor marijuana charges as a freshman — and interested teams had reasonable doubt about Scarlett’s character.
Panthers general manager Marty Hurney did his homework on Scarlett during the pre-draft process. He liked what he saw on tape but says he needed assurance before adding Scarlett to his team’s running backs room.
Hurney says he came away impressed — enough so to give Scarlett a call on day three of the draft.
“The biggest thing is, he was very remorseful. He admitted he made a mistake when he was a freshman,” Hurney said after the draft. “He was the one guy that stayed (after his suspension) and worked his way back to make up for it. I think that’s really what impressed us the most.
“You talk to anybody down there, they love this kid.”
No freedom of consequence
Scarlett added $1,940 to his girlfriend’s UF bookstore account in 2017, using stolen credit card information. Per the Gainesville Sun, he admitted to investigators that he used the information to buy computer equipment “because he thought he could get away with it.”
He didn’t. McElwain, then the Florida coach, suspended Scarlett, along with eight other players, for what amounted to the entire 2017 season. Rather than remove him from the team outright, McElwain gave the running back an opportunity to earn his redemption.
“He just wanted to see if I was going to be one of those guys that quit or if I was going to continue to work,” Scarlett said. “I always stayed working out and kept my head in that gameplan.
“I stuck around because I felt like I had something to prove. I had to clean up my name, for one, and two, I had to prove to Gator fans that I really cared about the program. It was more of a thing for me to show everybody and show myself.”
McElwain said he never believed Scarlett wasn’t a good fit to remain with the team, or wasn’t a good person.
But he said his responsibility as a coach and molder of young men meant implementing one of his programs’ core philosophies.
“We all have freedom of choice — we don’t have freedom of consequence,” McElwain said. “It’s really what we learn from our choices. In this case, he didn’t pout, he didn’t come in and try to hide it. That’s what I love about Jordan and a couple of other guys that were involved, they owned up to it. That, to me, tells me a lot about a person.
“He understood what it was, took care of it immediately and worked his tail off. With that, I think sometimes those bumps in the road that happen to us along the way help us become stronger.”
While three of the nine suspended players, transferred from Florida and one, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Antonio Calloway, declared for the NFL Draft, Scarlett began the difficult process of clearing his name.
Prior to 2017, he’d never suffered a major injury or took another sort of leave of absence; his year away from football was the longest he’d spent off the field.
“It was definitely challenging, one of the toughest times of my life,” Scarlett said. “It was something that made me the man who I am today. It made me reflect on how much football meant to me and how I really needed to start taking it more seriously.”
‘I don’t know you and I don’t care about your past’
McElwain left Florida prior to the 2018 season, meaning if Scarlett were to return to the Gators, it’d be at the decision of a coach who didn’t recruit him to the program.
But two months after the university hired Mullen, Scarlett and three teammates were re-instated to the team.
“Coach Mullen came up to me like a man and told me we’re starting off with a clean slate,” Scarlett said. “(Mullen said) ‘I don’t know you, I don’t care about your past.’ He was never trying to judge me and I was thankful for that.
“He gave me the opportunity and I took advantage of it.”
Mullen could not be reached for comment.
Scarlett split time in the Gators’ backfield with Lamical Perine, finishing the season second on the team in rushing yards and attempts. It was enough to convince the Panthers to bring him to Charlotte as a backup to Christian McCaffrey.
He joins a carefully curated Carolina locker room that lost longtime veteran leaders Thomas Davis and Ryan Kalil, but retained enough veteran leadership to keep the rookie’s redemption tour on the right path.
Of course, it’s not solely on the Panthers vets to keep Scarlett out of trouble — he’s responsible for his own behavior. That’s what he’s proved to those who know him over the past two years.
“Every one of us has messed up at some point. The key is learning from any mistake and any failure that we do and move forward,” McElwain said. “He never used it as a ‘woe is me’ kind of deal. He kept working
“What makes me more proud than anything is to see guys that fight through when things aren’t perfect.”