Scott Fowler

Fozzy time: Panthers reserve running back Whittaker steps into spotlight

dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Fozzy Whittaker – journeyman running back, Texas native and avid cyclist – is about to re-introduce himself to the Carolina Panthers’ fan base and to the larger NFL world.

When Whittaker ran for 6 yards on the Panthers’ final offensive play Sunday in a 46-27 home victory over San Francisco, he managed to hit exactly 100 yards rushing for the day. That was quite a milestone for a 27-year-old running back who not only had never had a 100-yard rushing day in the pros but who also never had one in college at the University of Texas.

Now the opportunities are going to continue to keep coming. Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers’ starter and a Pro Bowler in 2015, has gotten hurt again. His hamstring injury will keep him out “at least a week or two,” according to coach Ron Rivera. And it may be a lot longer than that.

So it’s Fozzy time.

Even most avid NFL fans have little idea who Whittaker is – he was owned in only two percent of all fantasy football leagues as of Sunday, according to CBSSports.com. But that number will skyrocket this week after Whittaker’s 100-yard performance and Stewart’s lingering injury.

Whittaker is an intellectual type of player, praised by coach Ron Rivera for his on-field smarts. But in this case, with the biggest NFL opportunity of his life in front of him, he doesn’t want to mentally pick it apart.

“I don’t want to think too much,” Whittaker said. “I want to just go.”

Fozzy and Cap

Now to be fair, it’s also Cameron Artis-Payne’s time. The player teammates call “Cap” because of his initials was a healthy scratch each of the first two weeks for Carolina. But Artis-Payne will be active against Minnesota Sunday as well, and the two backs will split carries along with Pro Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert, who is best in short-yardage situations.

When you think of the two running styles of the two younger backs, it may be helpful to imagine Whittaker in the elusive mold of former Panther DeAngelo Williams and Artis-Payne in the grinding mold of Stewart.

“Cap is a stout inside runner with good vision who makes some good cuts,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “Fozzy is niftier, with a little better lateral movement.”

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula said the Panthers would likely handle the running back carries by committee, much like they have done before when Stewart has missed games. Whittaker had 19 touches Sunday and Shula was asked if he could handle that load regularly.

“On paper,” Shula said, “you’d say probably no. But you don’t want to ever underestimate any of our guys.”

Whittaker has had a few major moments for the Panthers before. In January 2015, with Arizona leading Carolina 14-13 in a playoff game, Whittaker took a screen pass from Cam Newton at the Arizona 45, cut all the way across the field, broke three tackles and scored the go-ahead touchdown.

Plays of 19, 24 and 25 yards

Whittaker’s career high for rushing yards was a modest 41 until Sunday. It didn’t look like he would get anywhere near 100 early. Whittaker was checked for a concussion early in the game – he didn’t have one – and also lost a fumble for the only time in 146 career touches as a running back. The 49ers scored shortly after that turnover.

“The worst thing I could do,” Whittaker said of the fumble, “was to dwell on it and let it affect other plays in the future. ... It lingered in my head just for a quick second. I’m a better back than somebody who puts the ball on the ground and has a turnover.”

Whittaker showed his power of positive thinking soon afterward, with runs of 25 and 19 yards. Whittaker got those 100 yards on only 16 carries and added a 24-yard pass reception. He was part of a record-setting offensive day, as Carolina for the first time had a 300-yard passer (Cam Newton), two 100-yard receivers (Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin) and a 100-yard rusher (Whittaker) in the same game.

It’s conceivable that on Sunday we saw the one 100-yard rushing game Whittaker will ever have in his NFL career, because the Panthers were caught short-handed and gave him the ball far more than they had planned.

But it’s also conceivable that Whittaker goes the way of Nick Goings, another former Panthers running back he reminds me of a little. Following a slew of injuries in 2004, Goings actually had four 100-yard games in a row for Carolina before fading back into obscurity.

Whittaker is a friendly guy who exudes energy and likes to ride his bike. He used to ride it to Panthers’ practices pretty regularly, adding some diversity to a player parking lot mostly filled with luxury cars and trucks. Now he has moved 3 miles away from the stadium and doesn’t bike to work much anymore, although he said he likes to ride around in his own neighborhood to get a “mini-workout.”

On those rides around uptown Charlotte, he is quite anonymous at the moment. But that is about to come to an end.

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