Scott Fowler

Curtis Samuel could be a dazzling star for Panthers in 2019. But can he stay healthy?

Carolina Panther fans love to imagine Curtis Samuel getting a dozen touches per game.

With dazzling elusiveness and roadrunner speed, Samuel enters his third Panthers’ training camp looking very much like a potential star. In 2018, he scored seven touchdowns — second only to Christian McCaffrey’s 13. Those seven TDs came despite the fact that Samuel had the ball in his hands only 57 times all season (39 receptions, eight runs and 10 kickoff returns).

That worked out to one touchdown every 8.1 times Samuel touched the ball. McCaffrey was Carolina’s best offensive player in 2018, but he still only managed to dent the end zone once every 25 touches.

And Samuel has never lacked for confidence — another prerequisite for most NFL stars. Asked about last season on Wednesday, shortly after the Panthers reported for training camp, Samuel said: “I was a dynamic player. Whenever I got the ball in my hands, I made things happen for the team. I scored touchdowns. That’s what I do.”

This, then, is the year Samuel is supposed to be even better.

If he doesn’t get hurt.

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Curtis Samuel ran a 4.31 40-yard dash coming out of Ohio State but said he feels like he has picked up a little more speed in the most recent offseason. Jeff Siner

‘As long as I’m out there’

As with his speed, injuries are an essential part of Samuel’s story. In two seasons with the Panthers, he has been hampered by hamstring and ankle problems. He also missed the first three games of the 2018 season after reportedly undergoing a procedure to fix an irregular heartbeat.

In two Panthers seasons, Samuel has missed 31 percent of the games.

In 2018, though, Samuel played the final 13 in a row. That was an excellent sign for a 5-11, 195-pound receiver who is always one of the smallest players on the field.

It would be wonderful to see what Samuel could do if he catches passes from Cam Newton in all 16 games this season, but the 22-year-old also knows that durability remains the biggest question still surrounding him.

“The main thing with me is just staying healthy,” Samuel said. “As long as I’m out there, I feel like I’m going to be able to produce as much as I want to.”

‘Dynamic, explosive’

Samuel’s emergence as a home-run threat was one of the best things about the 7-9 Panthers season of 2018. He scored on a 25-yard screen pass against the New York Giants in his first game in which he seemed to make half the Giants defense miss a tackle. He added two rushing TDs of 14 and 33 yards later in the year. In the season finale against New Orleans, he ran down and caught a 53-yard touchdown pass from Kyle Allen, beating double coverage to do it.

“He’s just done a terrific job for us,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “And with the ball in his hands, he can be a very dynamic, explosive player.”

Said tight end Greg Olsen of Samuel: “Last year, with him missing so much of his rookie year, it was almost like a rookie year all over again ... So I think this year, with a full offseason and being healthy — obviously he’s just incredibly dynamic.”

Samuel’s career pattern

That word “dynamic” comes up a lot with Samuel, who said Wednesday he feels even faster after an offseason in which he said he spent a lot of time training in Miami. Samuel reminds me a lot of Ted Ginn Jr., who wasn’t ever the Panthers’ go-to receiver in terms of quantity of catches but sure had a lot of quality ones. Like Samuel, Ginn was a 5-11 speedster who went to Ohio State.

Samuel won’t lead the team in receptions in 2019 — that should be running back Christian McCaffrey again, with Olsen and wide receiver DJ Moore likely fighting for second place. But he’ll get the ball more in space – as long as he doesn’t get hurt.

He said Wednesday he felt like he’s a “great player.” Now comes the chance to prove it. According to Samuel’s personal calendar, this should be a big year.

“I feel just like my life has been going the same way all the time,” Samuel said. “Just like in high school (in Brooklyn, N.Y.) First year I got hurt. Second year I played a little bit. And then third year I took off. Like college – first year I got hurt. Second year I got to play a little bit. Third year I took off.”

Left unsaid but implied: In Samuel’s first year with the Panthers, he got hurt. In his second, he played a good bit. And now we’ve come to his third year:

Time to take off.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.