Scott Fowler

Exhibition opener far from meaningless for Panthers’ David Mayo

The Carolina Panthers' David Mayo was second in the nation in total tackles in 2014, with 154 for Texas State.
The Carolina Panthers' David Mayo was second in the nation in total tackles in 2014, with 154 for Texas State. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

NFL exhibitions have a bad reputation, and in many ways it is deserved. The games don’t count. The best players play sporadically – if at all. And yet the exhibitions cost as much to attend as a real game.

For a rookie such as David Mayo, however, they are huge. The Carolina Panthers will open their preseason at 7 p.m. Friday at Buffalo, and to Mayo the game is far from fake.

“Friday is a real deal for me,” said Mayo, a rookie linebacker who was the Panthers’ fifth-round draft pick in 2015. “I’m taking it as seriously as I can.”

Mayo will play on special teams and later in the game, after the starters have long departed, on defense. He not only isn’t among the Panthers’ most high-profile linebackers – they would be Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis – but he also isn’t their highest-profile rookie linebacker. That would be his training-camp roommate, Shaq Thompson, who was Carolina’s first-round pick. A handful of other veterans rank higher on the depth chart than Mayo, too.

So Mayo is trying to figure out where he fits again, just as he has done several times during his career. The Panthers hope he becomes a special-teams ace, but he hasn’t played special teams regularly since his sophomore year in high school. For now, Mayo is backing up Kuechly at middle linebacker. But if he is going to make the team and make a contribution in real games, special teams will be the fastest route.

“I never said I didn’t want to be on special teams, it just didn’t happen that way” in college, Mayo said. “And now I’m expected to play on all special teams, so that’s been an adjustment for me.”

“He’s a very physical guy,” coach Ron Rivera said of Mayo. “He was second in the nation in total tackles last year. He can step up into a crease and make a hit. He’s still got a ways to go, but the nice thing about the position he plays is there is no pressure for him to immediately get onto the field. We want to see development and growth.”

At Texas State, David Mayo was second in the nation in 2014 in total tackles with 154.

With long blond hair peeking out from under his helmet, Mayo looks a little like Green Bay star linebacker Clay Matthews. Occasionally, he will make a play like Matthews, too.

On Monday, about 30 minutes before the Cam Newton-Josh Norman fight, Mayo was going against fellow rookie Cameron Artis-Payne in a one-on-one drill. Mayo was trying to get to a spot representing the quarterback, and Artis-Payne was trying to block him.

The first time? Mayo ran over Artis-Payne, knocking the running back directly onto his rear.

The second and third times? Mayo feinted one way, went the other and both times beat Artis-Payne again.

But Mayo sometimes has struggled covering backs out of the backfield on pass routes.

“There’s going to be a learning curve,” he said. “But I’m settling in a little bit more.”

After playing college football in Texas, Mayo says the Carolina heat has been no problem so far.

Mayo took a roundabout route to the NFL. He grew up and went to high school in Oregon but wasn’t considered a Division I recruit. He went to junior college in Santa Monica, Calif., had a good year and managed to get a scholarship at Texas State in San Marcos, Texas. There he improved steadily, getting in on 154 tackles in his senior year and becoming the Sun Belt Conference’s defensive player of the year.

The year 2015 has been big so far for Mayo – he got drafted, then two months later he got married, in July.

Now he has four exhibitions to prove the Panthers made a smart move by selecting him. Friday will be the beginning.

“I’ll be pretty nervous,” Mayo said.

Rightfully so. Because in the game, while a lot of people are thinking about changing the channel, Mayo will be trying to make the team.

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