Sports

Will Grier has ‘rally hair’ and the focus it may take to be Panthers’ backup QB

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence doesn’t have much on Carolina Panthers backup quarterback Will Grier — at least in the hair department.

Grier’s dark brown locks flow from the back of his helmet just like Lawrence’s signature blond mane does in Jacksonville. He began growing it initially because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but now it’s to the point of becoming a thing.

“Rally hair,’’ Grier said jokingly.

But what Grier would rather have in common with Lawrence is a lock on a job. He won’t be Carolina’s starter, like the top pick of the 2021 draft is expected to be in Jacksonville, because that job belongs to Sam Darnold. And there are no guarantees he will beat out former XFL star P.J. Walker as the backup.

So the next few weeks are crucial in terms of Grier’s future, not just with the Panthers but perhaps the NFL. The 26-year-old has to prove to coach Matt Rhule he’s better than Walker, who played for Rhule at Temple and was the choice last year when Teddy Bridgewater missed a game due to injury.

His audition starts Sunday in Indianapolis. With Carolina’s starters not playing in the preseason opener (1 p.m.) against the Colts, this will be Grier’s first opportunity in a game to impress since they met in college. Walker will start the game, and Grier will come in after.

Before that, Rhule’s only game exposure to Grier was when his Baylor team played West Virginia (Grier had 353 yards passing and three touchdowns) in 2018 and film of the last two games of the 2019 season, when Grier started during Cam Newton’s injury-plagued year.

And those starts weren’t résumé material. Grier completed only 52.8 percent of his passes for 228 yards with four interceptions and no touchdowns.

So Grier’s focus is on being ready, admittedly a tough adjustment after starting every game his two seasons at West Virginia and starting from the time he first played quarterback.

If he doesn’t beat out Walker, don’t be surprised if the Panthers shop for their third quarterback. A veteran with starting experience, as former Panthers quarterback Cam Newton had with Derek Anderson, might not be a bad idea.

Or Rhule could just keep two quarterbacks.

“He’s very realistic, and he knows that he needs to play well whenever he gets a chance,’’ said Grier’s dad, Chad, who coached his son at Davidson Day School just outside of Charlotte. “He’s very confident in what he can do. He was very confident last year.’’

That’s what made last season so disappointing for the younger Grier, Carolina’s 2019 third-round pick. He never got to show he was ready.

“It wasn’t frustrating not to get it, it was more so just disappointing when it was over,’’ Will said. “I felt I could help my team.’’

Walker isn’t safe, either. He and Grier are listed as co-No. 2s on the depth chart, as they were at this time last preseason, when Walker eventually emerged.

There still are questions about whether Walker can protect the ball. He has a tendency to take chances and force the ball down the field, which resulted in one touchdown and five interceptions in the four games he played last season.

Grier’s issue is he’s not fearless enough. Instead of pushing the ball down field and making quick decisions, he’ll sometimes take off running or turn to checkdown throws that were a big part of the offense his first season under the previous staff. Rhule would like to see him get more aggressive.

Chad Grier helped with that and throwing on the run during the offseason.

“Did a lot of pocket movement, ball security,’’ Will said. “I had him out there with the boxing gloves on, punching me and the ball a little bit.’’

Chad saw improvement.

“It’s just a lot of chaos in the pocket, a lot of bumping and grinding,’’ he said. “I’d hit him and say, ‘Man, I’m so sorry.’ He said, ‘That’s OK. Keep swinging.’

“I took some pretty good shots. He never flinched. I guess I just don’t have much behind my punch. But he’s a grinder.’’

Chad calls this the evolution of his son’s game. He reminded Will (6-foot-1, 220) he didn’t hesitate to push the ball down the field at West Virginia, where he had 71 touchdown passes in 2017-18.

“In the pros, the thought was coming we’ve got [Christian] McCaffrey, other NFL guys, give them balls in space,’’ Chad recalled of Carolina’s offense in 2019. “Check it down, check it down. So it was a big part of the focus.’’

Consistency is the key now, which makes the preseason games vital.

“When you have arm talent, it’s easy to kind of get lazy with your fundamentals and just kind of whip the ball out there,’’ Will said. “It’s important to overemphasize those fundamentals. … You can throw it out there all day long and it’ll work three out of five times, but it needs to work five out of five times.’’

It’s all about taking advantage of opportunities now. Chad is optimistic, even though he hasn’t talked to his son much lately, having just returned from a “Remember The Titans’’ type training camp trip with his Providence Day team.

But then Chad mentioned the 2000 movie starring Denzel Washington could be an omen. The backup quarterback replaced the injured starter and led his team to the championship.

The character also had long hair initially but had to cut it to be on the team.

“It’s crazy,’’ Chad said of his son’s hair. “I don’t know what to make of it.’’

All he knows for sure is Will’s wife, Jeanne, seems to like it, and that might be motivation to keep it. But Will’s biggest motivation is proving himself and making the team.

“I’m not going to let it get much longer than this,’’ Will said with a laugh. “I don’t really have any plans. I wish I could tell you something cool. I may shave it tomorrow.’’

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