Carolina Panthers

From backup to breakout, Reggie Bonnafon’s first TD came at perfect time for Panthers

Every Thursday, as a mob of television crews slowly encircles Christian McCaffrey’s stall in the Carolina Panthers locker room, Reggie Bonnafon gets caught in the stampede.

Bonnafon, Carolina’s backup running back whose locker is next to McCaffrey’s, knows the drill. Media members trample over the shoes and dirty clothes laying on the carpet in his space. It makes for a convenient time for him to shower, or go receive treatment — or really, to do anything except sit around and get stepped on.

It’s the same way most Sundays, given McCaffrey’s success this season. He leads the NFL in rushing (587 yards) and yards from scrimmage (866), and at his trajectory, is on pace to shatter Chris Johnson’s single-season record for scrimmage yards. That defensive end Gerald McCoy said McCaffrey would be the NFL’s Most Valuable Player if the season ended today is probably the best indicator of where he stacks up league-wide.

“There wouldn’t be nobody else in the NFL that I would rather sit behind and learn from,” Bonnafon said. “He’s a great dude, man. Pushes me every day in practice, and I try to do the same for him.”

Bonnafon — and everyone in the Panthers media contingent — knows to expect a crowd around McCaffrey every time he holds court.

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Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) celebrates a touchdown run by running back Reggie Bonnafon (39) that ended up being the game-winning score against Jacksonville. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Sunday, though, after Carolina’s 34-27 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, things were different. This time, Bonnafon didn’t have to schlep his padded folding chair anywhere to accommodate reporters, or worry about someone trouncing on his used towels.

Instead he finished getting dressed, stood up from his stall — and turned to find himself at the center of a media frenzy.

“He’s Bonna-fied!” safety Tre Boston hollered from the other side of the locker room. Bonnafon chuckled in response, and a smile escaped that he couldn’t get rid of. But after his performance Sunday, that’s understandable.

Bonnafon entered Sunday’s game with four snaps to his name not just this season, but in two years in the NFL. After going undrafted out of Louisville in 2018, Bonnafon ended up on Carolina’s practice squad. He played quarterback, running back and wide receiver for the Cardinals, but never found a home at any position. The Panthers saw his potential at running back and opted to take a chance.

“We told him we were going to give him an opportunity to be a running back,” coach Ron Rivera said. “He was a kid in college who played quarterback, who played wide receiver, who played running back and never really knew where he would fit. He came out and had a great training camp this year, makes our 53.

“It was just a matter of him getting opportunities.”

And considering McCaffrey played 100 percent of the offensive snaps in three of Carolina’s first four games, there weren’t many of those. Bonnafon had two carries against Arizona for five yards late in the game when the win was already secured. Against Jacksonville, he spelled McCaffrey briefly in the first quarter and picked up five yards.

Then McCaffrey did his thing, racking up 237 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns in basically three quarters. Basically three, because he came out in the fourth with cramps. He tried stretching, pounded his fists on the bench — nothing worked.

In went Bonnafon.

“Anybody that’s active should prepare like they’re gonna play. That’s what I do,” Bonnafon said. “Obviously, even though Christian’s going to get a lot of the workload, it’s a next-man’s-up league, so you’ve always got to stay ready. My number was called today, so I just had to execute.”

At the time he went in, Jacksonville had just hit a field goal that cut Carolina’s lead to one point, 28-27. But on first-and-10 with 3:46 to play in the game, Bonnafon made sure the Panthers had more of a cushion.

Offensive coordinator Norv Turner called for an inside zone run the team had already been using throughout Sunday’s contest. It was the same call that sprung McCaffrey for his 84-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, the longest in franchise history.

And just like it did with McCaffrey, it worked to a tee for Bonnafon. He took the handoff inside, got to the second level of Jacksonville’s defense and was one-on-one with a safety.

“The offensive line did a great job of moving up front,” Bonnafon said. “Once I hit the second level, just had to make a move on the safety and just had to turn on the gas.

“Once I made the safety stop his feet, I knew nobody was going to catch me.”

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Reggie Bonnafon went mostly untouched during his 59-yard touchdown yard in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game between the Panthers and Jaguars. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Bonnafon got around the right side of the safety and sprinted 59 yards for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown. It was his first career NFL score, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

“I just cramped up a little bit, but at the end of the day, you see what Reggie can do, and that made my day because he was overdue. Sometimes I feel like I can hog that stuff,” McCaffrey said. “You see what happens, you know? Reggie gets his turn and does something special with the ball, and changes the entire pace of the game. So I was really proud.”

Bonnafon finished the game with five carries for 80 yards and that score.

Asked if he was dedicating that touchdown to anyone in particular, he didn’t hesitate:

“My dad,” Bonnafon said. “He passed away my freshman year in college, so I’m sure if he was here, he would’ve been crying. He cried with my first collegiate touchdown, so for him to probably have seen this one, I’m not sure if he would’ve passed out or what. I know he was looking and he was happy for me, for sure.”

Eventually the media around Bonnafon thinned. Reporters darted off to grab other players, until finally Bonnafon was alone again.

Minutes later, McCaffrey held his own media scrum — this time, off in a side room instead of at his normal stall.

A little space for Bonnafon, after he made the most of a little space — and playing time — in the game.

“I’m just trusting the process,” Bonnafon said. “All through college, I’ve been switching positions and stuff, so I just understand that if I keep working hard, showing up everyday with a good attitude, preparing myself and giving great effort, everything will take care of itself.

“I’m a guy that understands that patience is a virtue. It’s paying off for me, so that’s what I’m going to continue to do.”

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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