Scott Fowler

‘He’ll smack you ...’ Panthers Rashaan Gaulden wants to be a model of rookie success.

Carolina Panthers fans will want to get familiar with rookie safety Rashaan Gaulden, who is making some early waves at training camp.

Gaulden has already taken a number of snaps with the first-team defense as the Panthers scout around for the safety who is going to start opposite veteran Mike Adams. And much like rookie cornerback Donte Jackson — also a possible starter — Gaulden doesn’t lack for confidence.

“Coaches have seen I deserve a shot to run with the 1s,” Gaulden said. “So I’m just trying to make the most of what I get.”

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Gaulden (pronounced GAWL-den) has never been afraid of the camera or the spotlight. He has even done some modeling on the side. What sort of look is he going for when he poses?

Said Gaulden: “I like to give off the image that he has such a nice face, but he’ll smack you in the mouth on the football field.”

But the rookie is concentrating on his day job now. You can see his talent and smarts on plays such as the one he made on the second day of training camp, when he seamlessly took over the coverage of a receiver crossing the middle and caused the offense to take what was deemed a “coverage sack.”

You can also see that he’s a work in progress, as on Sunday morning when he was trying to make contact with Christian McCaffrey in the open field and instead got spun completely around to the delight of the other offensive players.

Rookie safety Rashaan Gaulden (right) is making some early waves at Carolina Panthers training camp. Jeff Siner

Said veteran Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn of Gaulden: “The kid has gotten better from the spring to now, for sure. Looking at the things he did in the spring I was like ‘OK, he’s got some work to do.’

“But he came out here and you can tell he put in the work over the month break that we had. He’s flying around. He’s understanding the defense. He’s making his plays and putting himself in position to make this team and play — and not just to be a special-teams guy. To really play and help us win football games.”

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The Panthers secondary was a weak spot too often last season, particularly in Carolina’s three losses to New Orleans. In an NFC South division where every team has a well-established quarterback, every secondary is under tremendous pressure.

Carolina’s Rashaan Gaulden (28) has been getting some first-team repetitions early in training camp at Wofford. Chuck Burton AP

Gaulden said he doesn’t mind. This is a guy who became semi-legendary among a certain contingent of Tennessee fans for flipping a double middle-finger salute at Alabama fans in 2017 after a Volunteers defensive touchdown (Tennessee was losing 28-6 at the time).

Gaulden took some heat for the gesture at the time — he once said he flipped those birds because he “hates Alabama.” He still likes to talk constantly on the field — first, with his teammates, but also to the guy he is supposed to be guarding.

Said Panthers coach Ron Rivera: “Gaulden has been great. He started a little bit slow in (organized team activities) and minicamp. But (more recently) he just really stepped up and flashed very well. Every day he made a play.”

Describing his playing style, Gaulden said: “I’m a gritty football player. I’m up in your face always. I’m talking to my one-on-one matchup. And I take tremendous pride in my communication with my defense.”

If Gaulden can beat out veteran Da’Norris Searcy and several others to start and if Jackson can win a starting cornerback job as well, Carolina will get an injection of speed and youth into the secondary. But rookies make rookie mistakes, and some from Gaulden are inevitable.

Still, the third-round pick is modeling some good behavior as he tries to not only to make the team, but to also help make the team a bigger winner.