Elijah Hood owns a Cam Newton jersey, which is a bit strange since right now he is also a teammate of Cam Newton.
Then again, Hood grew up in Charlotte as a Panthers fan, so it’s not really that odd. He also still owns a Carolina Panthers comforter that he has had for years. He has an old Mike Minter jersey, too, one that even now is too big for him.
“I don’t know what size I got that in, but it still comes down to here,” Hood said, pointing to his thigh. “When I was a kid, it used to come down to my feet.”
Hood, a superstar running back at Charlotte Catholic who went on to play college football at North Carolina, is experiencing his first training camp in Spartanburg. He said he “never had the resources” to visit Panthers training camp as a fan, but he is now on the inside and trying to stay there — a longshot to make the active roster, but definitely a guy who has a chance.
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When the Panthers first signed him off waivers in May, Hood had a hard time believing it. He had earned his first NFL job in Oakland, where he was a seventh-round draft choice in 2017 and remained mostly on the practice squad last season. But the Raiders had an offseason purge, related in part to hiring new coach Jon Gruden, and Hood was released. Carolina quickly signed him, which Hood described as a surreal experience. That feeling remains, albeit in a slightly milder form.
“I wouldn’t say it’s just completely gone,” Hood said. “I’d say it’s more of a high now, more of a just you know ‘this is really cool.’ I’m here now. I’m in it.”
Why leave UNC early?
Hood is a physical back who has long been known for making the tough yardage between the tackles. Unfortunately for him, the Panthers already have a couple of more well-known guys with a very similar skill set — running back C.J. Anderson, who had a 1,000-yard season in 2017 with Denver; and Cameron Artis-Payne, who has waited mostly in the wings for the past three years, anxious to show his worth.
Hood’s best chance may be to begin this season on the practice squad once again — he would have to make a serious dent on special teams to make it to the active roster. His shot will come in the exhibition games, during the third and fourth quarters when many fans will tune out but when Hood likely will have a chance to play.
“Preseason will be real big,” Hood said. “It’s a chance to get some live action and show what I can do when guys actually try to tackle me. I think that’s where I shine — in the physical aspects of the game.”
At 5-11 and 230 pounds, Hood is a bruising back who scored 29 touchdowns and ran for 2,580 yards in three years with the Tar Heels under head coach Larry Fedora. Hood left Chapel Hill a year early after the 2016 season, despite being projected as a player who would be a late-round draft pick at best. Why?
“College is real tough on your body,” Hood said. “I don’t want to ‘down’ anybody, but it’s harder on your body the way they treat the players and stuff. I was getting real banged up, especially with the way I run, and the way they wanted me to run like that in practice and in games. So it was just kind of beating me down a lot.”
Hood said in his experience that NFL practices are actually less intense than college ones as a rule, because the tackling is more technique-based and the amount of contact is “not the same level.” NFL teams also have fully padded practices less often than college teams do in Hood’s experience. Hood emphasized he was not criticizing the Tar Heels’ approach, however.
“I guess college is different though because you’ve got to toughen some guys up,” Hood said. “Some guys come from high school and they ain’t never tackled a thing in their life. All they been doing is covering stuff. So you’ve got to teach people how to tackle.”
A nickname from Cam
Hood’s first five practices of training camp have been up and down. He has bobbled the ball a couple of times, but he has also held his own in some of the one-on-one drills in which strength is required. He knows that the preseason will be a chance for him to get enough playing time that even if the Panthers don’t keep him that some other team with a need at running back might.
For now, though, he is enjoying the experience and shows a little pride that Newton — the player he once knew from afar only as a fan — has bestowed one of his trademark nicknames on Hood.
“The first time I dealt with Cam was when I joined the team,” Hood said. “We got in the meeting room and started looking at some film and he said. ‘Why are your eyes so big? I’m going to start calling you ‘Panic Room’!’”
That stuck. So whenever Hood makes a good play at training camp, you can hear Newton yell “Panic Room!” in the distance. Hood likes it and daydreams of a time when NFL defensive backs’ eyes will widen as they see him bearing down on them.
“I’m bringing the panic, I guess,” Hood said, grinning. “I’m trying to cause some havoc.”