Scott Fowler

Ever heard of Javien Elliott? He’s the Panthers’ biggest surprise of camp so far

Javien Elliott, one of the biggest early surprises of Panthers training camp, has been surprising people who have underestimated him for much of his football career.

Suddenly a real contender to become Carolina’s starter at nickel cornerback, Elliott has made an interception in team drills in each of the past two practices. Elliott has even been getting some time with the first-team defense as the Panthers try to sort out who’s going to replace the departed Captain Munnerlyn at nickel.

It’s all pretty heady stuff for a guy who — take a deep breath — had exactly zero scholarship offers out of high school; went to community college to improve his grades but didn’t play football; walked on at Florida State; earned a scholarship; became a starter; wasn’t drafted; made Tampa Bay’s practice squad as an undrafted free agent; became a part-time starter for the Bucs; intercepted Newton in 2018 during a Tampa Bay win over Carolina and returned the ball 50 yards; was picked up in June by the Panthers; and then, on Monday, intercepted Newton once more at training camp.

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Carolina Panthers cornerback Javien Elliott (38) intercepts a pass Monday intended for wide receiver Chris Hogan (15) during training camp at Wofford College. David T. Foster III

Or, as Elliott told me Monday: “It’s a story I really can’t make up …. I didn’t play football for three years after high school! A lot of people don’t know that.”

Panthers coach Ron Rivera has termed the competition at nickel cornerback the biggest battle on the roster. And Elliott — who is being challenged by Rashaan Gaulden, Corn Elder and Cole Luke at the spot — has made big plays the past two days while fans at Carolina’s training camp have grabbed their roster and tried to figure out who this No. 38 is.

“Javien has some experience in this league,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “He started five games last season at the nickel position…. He looks very good out there. And he’s learning. You can see as he gets more and more comfortable with what we do, his confidence level is rising …. A guy like that can really help you.”

Overshadowed by McCoy

Now 26, Elliott’s signing by the Panthers in early June was heralded by, well, hardly anybody outside his immediate family. The problem was that Carolina had signed another ex-Buc – a Pro Bowl defensive tackle named Gerald McCoy – the day before. Everyone was wrapped up in the McCoy signing, and barely anyone had heard of Elliott, anyway.

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Carolina Panthers cornerback Javien Elliott (38) celebrates an interception of quarterback Cam Newton Monday during training camp. Elliott’s only career NFL interception also came courtesy of Newton during the 2018 season, when Elliott played for Tampa Bay. David T. Foster III

But Elliott is used to that. He played for a small high school in Panama City, Fla., and the only recruiting visit he took was an unofficial one to South Alabama. Grades were one problem, but Elliott said another one was his family’s lack of knowledge about the way the recruiting game goes.

“I think it was a lack of guidance,” Elliott said. “I didn’t know anything about applying to colleges early, things like that.”

Elliott also has always been overlooked thanks to being the size of an average American man but relatively small for an elite football player. The Panthers list him at 5-foot-11, likely using the same measuring stick the Charlotte Hornets used when they listed the diminutive Kemba Walker at 6-1.

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Carolina Panthers cornerback Javien Elliott (38) is listed at 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, so he is one of the Panthers’ smaller defensive backs. Safety Eric Reid (25) is listed at 6-1 and 215 pounds. David T. Foster III

After high school, Elliott could have been done with football. But his father, Jay Elliott, called around and got someone in the Florida State football office interested. He sent a DVD of his son’s highlight tape and got a call back, saying Javien could walk on with the Seminoles.

Intercepting Cam Newton

Still, it took three years for that to happen; Elliott needed to work on his grades first. Then he took Florida State up on the offer.

“I had two years there,” Elliott said. “I walked on. I sat out my first year. Then I just went out there, had fun, balled out, earned my scholarship and that was my process through college.”

Elliott then stayed in Florida when the Bucs picked him up as an undrafted free agent and mostly kept him on the practice squad his first season. In 2017 and 2018, however, Elliott played in 30 of a potential 32 games — on special teams and as a cornerback. He started five games last season for Tampa Bay and intercepted Newton as part of Newton’s forgettable four-interception performance in December in a 24-17 Carolina loss.

“It was an awesome moment,” Elliott said.

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Carolina Panthers cornerback Javien Elliott (38) only played one season of college football and was an undrafted free agent when he entered the NFL. David T. Foster III

The Buccaneers didn’t keep him. “I’m happy it happened that way,” Elliott said. “At first I was like, ‘I wonder why? I wonder why?’ But when one door shuts, a better one opens.”

Elliott will be a fun player to watch during the preseason. His range of possibilities is wide. He might not make the team at all, or he might be the starting nickel cornerback, playing close to half the defensive snaps in the pass-happy NFL. As for his journey to the Panthers, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I think it was just the way it was meant to be,” Elliott said. “I’m from a small town. Not many people get a chance. But I like it the way it happened. It made me hungry.”

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 is the host of the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth.”