Carolina Panthers

Panthers need a reliable returner. Greg Dortch says he’s the one. ‘I’m fun to watch.’

Rookie returner Greg Dortch (2), a former star receiver at Wake Forest and a former New York Jet, is hoping to establish himself as the Carolina Panthers’ return man.
Rookie returner Greg Dortch (2), a former star receiver at Wake Forest and a former New York Jet, is hoping to establish himself as the Carolina Panthers’ return man. AP

The last young “dynamic” returner the Panthers took a chance on ... well, things didn’t turn out so well.

The Panthers claimed ex-Clemson receiver Ray-Ray McCloud off waivers the weekend of roster cuts, hoping the former Tiger would bring the explosiveness he displayed in college. And while McCloud did that, averaging 21.8 return yards per kick and 8.2 per punt, he also struggled to hang onto the ball. McCloud fumbled twice in the Panthers’ Week 2 loss to Tampa Bay, losing one of them, and then fumbled again during the Week 6 rematch in London.

Two days later, McCloud was waived.

The team signed Greg Dortch a day later. And Dortch, who came to Carolina off the New York Jets’ practice squad, was aware of the situation he was coming into.

“I was. I mean, you hear stuff around the league, and you watch film and you see things. But I didn’t think they were going to let (McCloud) go,” Dortch said. “Once they did, then there was an opportunity.

“So I let my agent know — I was on practice squad, so I wanted to play somewhere, I didn’t care — and when Carolina opened up ... I’m close to Carolina, my family lives here and I went to school at Wake Forest like an hour away. It was a no-brainer.”

Now, after two weeks back in the North Carolina humidity, Dortch says he’s adjusted. And after being a healthy scratch on Sunday against the 49ers — coach Ron Rivera said the team wanted to give him time to get his feet under him — he’s ready to show what he can do.

“I just think I’m fun to watch,” Dortch said, a wide smile erupting on his face. “I just think every time I get the ball, you never know what you’re going to get ... I’m happy when I have the ball in my hands.”

Dortch should be happy most of this coming Sunday then, as he’ll have plenty of opportunities against the visiting Tennessee Titans.

Rivera said that Dortch could be a “dual” returner for the team, meaning handling both kick and punt return duties.

“It’s kind of nice because with the wind out there today kicking it up the way it was, he was catching punts and did a nice job. That was good to see,” Rivera said of Dortch. “Again, we wanted to kind of give him an opportunity to get his feet underneath him last week. This week with the way he’s progressing, there’s a great opportunity for him to return kicks for us this week, and we’ll see how he finishes up tomorrow.”

Dortch said he feels comfortable doing both.

As receiver Brandon Zylstra, a fellow returner, explained, there are two main traits that carry over between the two types of returns.

“Honestly, just having confidence and consistency. Just being consistent back there, earning the trust from the coaches and kind of all the players around that you can make the catch consistently,” Zylstra said. “Continue to make smart plays. Wave it off, calling people off if it’s a bad ball or something like that. Really just trying to catch every ball.”

Dortch has the first requirement — confidence — in spades, partially because of his two punt return touchdowns last season for the Demon Deacons. That All-America status does wonders for a player’s confidence.

But consistency, something the Panthers lacked with McCloud and also against San Francisco — both Zylstra and running back Reggie Bonnafon muffed returns, although neither lost possession — will be paramount.

As for what Dortch might offer this Sunday?

Well, even his teammates are expecting the best.

“He’s been good. He seems like a really consistent returner, so he definitely fits the mold,” Zylstra said. “I’m excited to actually see him in live action, because in practice you can only see so much. You see him catch, run it and there’s nobody around.

“It’ll be fun to see how special he actually is.”

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.
Support my work with a digital subscription