CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Joe Horn notes there are “selfish fathers’’ that put so much pressure on their kids to excel in sports they don’t want to play past a certain age. The former NFL Pro Bowl receiver said there are times you have to take your foot off the pedal and let them find their way.
“That’s right, the Hall of Fame,’’ said the elder Horn, himself a longshot for the Hall of Fame with 603 receptions (81st all-time) and 8,744 yards (75th). “Once you put on that yellow jacket, our blueprint is complete. Jaycee knows that. He just has to deal with it. And he can.’’
Handling pressure is what made the 21-year-old cornerback out of South Carolina worth the eighth overall selection when the Panthers could have gone with the more popular pick of Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields to compete with Sam Darnold.
The Panthers, whose corners in 2020 allowed a league-high 3.3 yards of separation, believed strongly they needed a shutdown corner more than a quarterback after ranking near the bottom of the NFL in third-down defense last season.
In Jaycee, coach Matt Rhule and general manager Scott Fitterer saw somebody who could start from Day 1 and make an immediate impact in an NFC South filled with big Pro Bowl receivers such as Atlanta’s Julio Jones and New Orleans’ Michael Thomas.
“Let me break that down for you,’’ Joe said. “Being on time for practice. Being the last one to leave the field, studying film, going out and making sure you’re helping the Carolina community, that you’re giving back to the children.’’
Those tenets are at the core of the process Rhule used to turn around college programs at Temple and Baylor. The Panthers believe Jaycee will play a big role in that process in Carolina.
That’s why Fitterer turned down trade offers after spending much of the pre-draft process talking about the value of trading down.
“There wasn’t anything that really kind of matched moving away from Jaycee, who was the top player on our board at that time,’’ Fitterer said. “He was just too good of a fit for us.’’
Prepping for pressure
Being the son of a successful NFL player is different than being the son of a 9-to-5 dad. At least, that's what the elder Horn believes.
“When you're raising a son, and that son knows you were a pretty good player in the NFL, to be sure he's doing everything he can to outdo their dad,’’ he said.
No argument from Jaycee, who appreciates the importance of an NFL legacy.
“I want to come behind him and do the same thing, so I’m just ready to get to work,’’ he said.
Joe began preparing his son for this pressure at an early age. Instead of signing him up to play youth football in a league where the kids had the best equipment and played on the best fields, he put him in the Metro Atlanta Youth Football League.
“People that were in that league will understand what I'm talking about,’’ he said. “If it's 30 degrees outside, and the field has got two inches of rain and it's muddy, and there's no bleachers, there's no microphone, if it's a low, ran-down football field, they're playing football.’’
This is where Jaycee began developing what he calls the edge; he best can be described as “tenacious.’’
The elder Horn also used to intentionally wake his son up late on game days to see how he reacted showing up when teammates were warming up.
“Just to see mentally, can I make his mind strong enough to get on the field and still be that guy,’’ Joe said. “He passed with flying colors.’’
Carry over to college
Former South Carolina coach Will Muschamp likes to tell the story of Jaycee missing bed check during his first college camp.
After a few phone calls, he discovered Jaycee was in the film room.
“He got off easy, that’s for sure,’’ Muschamp said.
Muschamp put Jaycee on the opponent’s top receiver from Day 1. Teams usually shied away from him, which is why he had just two interceptions in three seasons.
Muschamp texted Rhule after Jaycee was selected to simply say, “You got a stud.’’
Joe says his son would be disappointed if he’s not matched up immediately on the top receiver the Panthers face.
“If he had to play the Atlanta Falcons tomorrow, he would probably call me crying, happy that he gets to go against Julio,’’ he said.
Jaycee actually called what would be a nightmare matchup for the best corners in the NFL a “blessing’’ during his introductory news conference.
If his dad still were in the league, he’d want to face him.
“I’m a little bigger than him, stronger than him, so I think that’d put me over the top,’’ said Jaycee, 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, compared to his dad who was listed as basically the same size.
Flip phone vs. seat belt
Jaycee got a call from Florida tight end Kyle Pitts, selected fourth overall by Atlanta, to remind him they will face each other twice a year now as NFC South rivals instead of once as they did in the SEC.
“[He] was like, ‘I hope you’re ready,’ ’’ Horn said. “And I was telling him, ‘Yeah, I’m going to lock that up.’ ’’
A big part of the elder Horn’s legacy comes from the 2003 season when, during a primetime game, he took a flip phone hidden under the goalpost pad and pretended to make a call after a touchdown.
His son has the seat belt celebration, in which he pretends to buckle a seat belt after shutting down a receiver. He plans to bring that and his reputation for friendly trash talking to the NFL.
“Growing up in Atlanta, especially as Joe Horn’s son, you've got to have some type of dog,’’ Jaycee said. “Because someone’s always at your neck.”
Jaycee made headlines when he began wearing No. 1 at South Carolina in 2019 after wearing No. 7 his first season. He’ll make them again if given the opportunity to wear that number with the Panthers.
The only player to wear the No. 1 in team history is Cam Newton, the first pick of the 2011 draft.
“I’m going to look at some of those single digits, too, see how those work out,’’ Horn said when asked what he thought if No. 24 was available.
It’s that confidence, along with his size and a 4.37-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, that gives the Panthers confidence he be an instant star.
“He’s a rare physical specimen who also has the pedigree that’s hard to find,’’ Rhule said.
Jaycee also has a blueprint few have coming into the league.
“If the Carolina Panthers play in three or four Super Bowls with Jaycee, that's fine,’’ the elder Horn said. “But my goal and his goal is the yellow jacket. So everything that comes with getting a yellow jacket, Jaycee knows.’’