Tom Sorensen

‘Blessing in disguise.’ This slightly used Panther is learning from his ‘big brother’

A fifth-round pick in the 2017 draft out of Miami, Corn Elder’s rookie season ended on the second day of camp to injury. But this fall, he has a real shot at sticking to the roster.
A fifth-round pick in the 2017 draft out of Miami, Corn Elder’s rookie season ended on the second day of camp to injury. But this fall, he has a real shot at sticking to the roster. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

We like new guys. They come to the Carolina Panthers straight out of college with daredevil highlights and glittering resumes. We have no idea what they can’t do. We know only what they can.

And then there are the former new guys that were injured and missed all or most of last season. If the rookies are the new cars, the former new guys are slightly used. Among them are defensive end Daeshon Hall, safety Demetrious Cox and cornerbacks Cole Luke and Corn Elder.

“There are several of these guys from last year’s class that have to step up in order for us to be successful,” Carolina Panthers’ coach Ron Rivera says Monday after the organized team activity. “We brought them here for a reason.”

On Monday, Elder attempts to demonstrate that reason. He is fast and fluid and not big, graciously listed at 5-10 and 185 pounds. A fifth-round pick in the 2017 draft out of Miami, he experienced pain in his right knee last summer in training camp. He had suffered a stress fracture of his patella, and had surgery in October. His season ended on the second day of camp.

“Frustrated? Yeah, definitely,” Elder says Tuesday morning after practice. “I was excited to get things going. But I believe that everything happens for a reason. I just took it as a blessing in disguise and got to learn the game.”

He asked the veteran cornerbacks how and why they did what they did. His primarily mentor was veteran cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. Munnerlyn was an inspired choice.

He and Elder share more than a great first name. Munnerlyn, 30, also is undersized, also was a late draft pick (seventh round) and also is a terrific tackler. There was a time when, if there was an altercation during a Carolina game and Munnerlyn was left out, he felt cheated. That time probably hasn’t ended. He is a smart player.

“That’s like my big brother,” Elder says of Munnerlyn. “I still learn a lot from him.”

In four seasons at Miami, Elder had only three interceptions. But as a senior, he had 55 solo tackles.

“Corn’s got great movement skills, and he’s got a great feel for the game,” says Rivera. “He’s had a good offseason. “

Elder likely will be used in the slot, which is Munnerlyn’s turf. But if the Panthers ever find themselves desperate for a no-time remaining, eight-lateral throwing, game-winning touchdown, make sure Elder is in the game.

In 2015, the Duke Blue Devils led Miami 27-24 with six seconds remaining. Duke kicked off to about Miami’s 25, and lateral time began. The second lateral was to Elder, and so was the sixth, and so was the eighth. Before the eighth lateral, all players had done was run around and throw the ball backward.

You’ve seen the play. Most teams call it, “Please, Lord, Help Us Get Lucky.” The Hurricanes call theirs “Desperado.”

Elder, a star running back in high school, grabbed the last lateral and saw a seam on the left side. He took it. As he sprinted down the sideline, and decided he was not going to be tackled, he collected several blocks from exhausted teammates, some of them legal. And he scored to give Miami the victory.

“That was the craziest thing I’ve ever been part of,” Elder says. “You never think you’ll be part of something like that. Honestly, I was just so tired after I scored, and everybody jumped on me and I couldn’t breathe. But I was so happy.”

The play is not supposed to work, and the officiating crew was suspended the next day. But, come on. The touchdown was so remarkable that, rather than attach an asterisk to it by accusing officials of missing calls, I would have counted it twice.

Another bonus Elder offers: The next time the Panthers play pickup basketball, one of the captains should pick him. A point guard, he was a star at the Ensworth School in Nashville, and was recruited to play basketball by Purdue. As a college freshman, he briefly played for Miami before dropping out to focus on football.

In Charlotte, his focus is to get the knee up to speed (he ran a 4.4 on Miami’s pro day) and listen to whatever Munnerlyn tells him.

Where is your game now?

Says Elder: “We’ll say it’s savvy. I’m not the biggest guy but I’m very tough, I play hard.”

When the knee is all the way back, what will the new-old rookie show us?

“I just have to wait until I get on the field to show everybody,” Elder says.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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