Sapakoff: If not Carolina, former Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware will find an NFL spot
SPARTANBURG – A magnetic force pulled Ben Boulware over to the chest-high black cement wall separating fans from Carolina Panthers players leaving their training camp practice field at Wofford College. Kids waved footballs and Sharpies, grown-ups with Clemson memorabilia, screaming women.
“Ben! We love you, Ben!”
“Hey, Boulware! Nice beard!”
“You’re my favorite Panther!”
Teal is such a unifying color in the Carolinas. Boulware, at once beloved for his ferocious approach to Clemson’s long climb to a national championship and belittled for brashness, now has Tar Heels, Blue Devils, Demon Deacons and Wolfpack backers pulling for a free agent linebacker to make the team.
“I’ve had so many tweets and messages from people who say, ‘I was a South Carolina fan but now that you’re not at Clemson anymore I can root for you,’” Boulware said. “Probably 50 of those.”
Popularity might make the man. It won’t make an NFL roster, even if the boyhood bedroom in Anderson and college glory days in Clemson are just two hours from Charlotte. Boulware (6-1, 235) might struggle to take on the best blockers in the world one play and stick with a swift running back in pass coverage the next.
But he’s motivated, spirited and smart – enough to find a way via special teams or a practice squad. He has impressed Panthers Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly, other teammates and coaches. If he doesn’t stick in Carolina, some team will notice.
All it takes is filmed evidence of Boulware’s ability in upcoming preseason games.
Coincidentally, the Panthers open against the Houston Texans on Aug. 9 at home. Boulware isn’t expecting much on-field interaction with his old friend Deshaun Watson, the former Clemson star quarterback and Houston’s first-round draft pick.
“If I get in the game it will probably be in the fourth quarter and Deshaun will probably play in the second quarter,” Boulware said. “If I do get in against him, that will be awesome; I would try my best to get a good smack on him. But he’d probably juke me out or, like he’s said, slide the protection to me.”
Until then, it’s more repetitions with the Panthers’ third team defense at Wofford.
Kuechly and Cam
“Obviously, I’m not getting 40 reps a day. I get 12 or 14 reps,” Boulware said. “But I feel like I’ve done my job. I haven’t had that pick-six or big hit or anything like that, but I feel like I’ve been consistent. I make my mistakes every now and then but I probably take more mental reps than anybody. I realized in my freshman year in college how big mental reps are and this is kind of my freshman year again.”
Boulware is in noticeably full “sponge” mode. He begins quizzing Kuechly the minute the great tackler steps onto the practice field each morning.
“Just to see what he’s seeing,” Boulware said. “But I probably need to cool out with him a little bit and give him a break.”
He studies Kuechly and fellow Pro Bowl linebacker Thomas Davis – “freaking geniuses,” Boulware said – every single snap. If Kuechly and Davis are busy, he is chatting up linebackers Shaq Thompson and Ben Jacobs.
When it’s his turn, Boulware barks out the defensive signals and goes hard, sometimes slapping the football away from ballcarriers just after the whistle blows.
On Sunday, when Boulware thought a practice play was going right and fourth-string quarterback Garrett Gilbert completed a pass to the left, Cam Newton celebrated with a yell and chest bump.
But the excitable newcomer is good with the Panthers’ franchise quarterback. Newton introduced himself to Boulware the first day of rookie mini-camp. He remembered Boulware pointing at him on the Auburn sideline after Boulware’s critical interception in Clemson’s 19-13 victory in the 2016 season opener.
“We just laughed about that,” Boulware said.
Smoothies, 9:15 bedtimes
Boulware’s training camp routine starts at 7 a.m. when an alarm goes off inside a Wofford dorm room he shares with cornerback Cole Luke, a rookie free agent from Notre Dame. Staffers make sure air horns also go off at 7.
“So even if you don’t have an alarm, you’re going to wake up at 7,” Boulware said.
Breakfast is eggs with spinach, turkey sausage, mushrooms and peppers.
“Then I put some hot sauce on that bad boy and I make a smoothie,” Boulware said.
With strawberries, blueberries, a banana, dry oats, powdered peanut butter and a mix of two-percent milk and almond milk.
“That’s been my breakfast for probably the last year,” Boulware said. “I’m pretty consistent.”
A special teams meeting from 8 to 8:30.
Practice from 9:20 to 11:30.
Weight lifting after practice.
Lunch. Lately, it’s been chicken and shrimp over rice with peppers and a sweet and sour sauce.
“Incredible,” Boulware said. “That lady cooking back there crushes it.”
Special teams meetings and defensive meetings all afternoon.
Dinner varies. Chicken, fish, maybe pasta.
A special teams meeting from 5 to 5:30.
Defense meets from 5:45 to 7:45.
A short practice walk-through.
Curfew is at 11.
“But I’m in bed by 9:15,” Boulware said, “because I am worn out.”
If Boulware makes the Panthers’ roster – his only 2017 goal – this is a special Spartanburg summer shared with some of his biggest fans.
But he knows adulation adds up to nothing.
“It’s nice to have that support but I have to do my part, too,” Boulware said. “I have to go out there and be consistent every single practice.”
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff