Luke DeCock

Rookie Brian Burns gives Panthers not only what they expected, but what they needed

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Brian Burns, having not scored a touchdown since middle school, didn’t quite believe he had until he got back to the sideline and saw the replay. Not when he picked up the ball. Not when the field opened up in front of him. Not when the player on his shoulder turned out to be teammate Bruce Irvin. Not when Irvin tackled him in the end zone 56 yards later.

He needed to see the play from above, from somewhere removed from the moment, to acknowledge that it actually happened.

“I thought they were going to call it an incomplete pass or something,” Burns said. “It’s a great feeling.”

The Panthers are starting to feel the same way about their first-round draft pick. They don’t quite believe it, either.

As the defense has carried the Panthers to an improbable 3-2 start despite losing Cam Newton — and, briefly, Sunday, Christian McCaffrey — to injury, Burns has delivered exactly what the Panthers expected and desperately needed out of the rookie from Florida State.

“He’s going to grow to be something special, I think,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.

Burns was rewarded with the scoop-and-score touchdown in Sunday’s 34-27 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, but the outside linebacker’s consistent pass rush off the edge has given the Panthers’ already-stout defense an extra dimension. The Jaguars’ Gardner Minshew threw for 374 yards and two touchdowns Sunday, but there were times when he must have felt like he was back at East Carolina, where the hapless Pirates were 3-14 despite having Minshew in the lineup.

When Mario Addison shoved former Panthers guard Andrew Norwell back into Minshew and swatted the ball loose to set up Burns’ touchdown, that was Minshew’s second unfortunate fumble of the day. The first came when a tight end lined up as a fullback knocked the ball out of his hands before he could hand it to Leonard Fournette. The third was forced by ... Burns.

On any other afternoon, Burns’ strip sack might have been a play he’d remember for a long time. On Sunday, it was a distant second behind his touchdown, in which he out-sprinted everyone but Irvin to the end zone.

“See ball, get ball, get to the end zone,” Burns said. “I took off because somebody was behind me, but it was Bruce.”

Burns is second on the Panthers in sacks (behind Addison) and first in quarterback hurries, which means he’s doing exactly what the Panthers hoped he would when they took him with the 16th pick in this year’s draft, hoping his technique would catch up with his uncommon athleticism. It’s not there yet, but where he is now isn’t bad, either.

“He’s special,” Addison said. “We need him. We need the juice that he brings. He’s very coachable. When he’s coming off the edge, you can tell, it’s Brian coming off the edge. We love to play with him.”

There’s a lot more to this resolute defense than Burns, but he has given it a little extra spice. And there’s nothing unexpected about the Panthers being stronger on that side of the ball, but they’ve needed every bit of it to bounce back from that 0-2 start while dealing with Newton’s “don’t-worry-about-the-foot” foot injury. There’s also the issues of McCaffrey’s cramps Sunday while the Panthers were trying to finish the game, a patchwork offensive line, Kyle Allen’s fumbleitis and Greg Olsen’s disappearance from the offense.

Somehow, the Panthers (3-2) remain in NFC South contention after picking up their first win at home in almost a year.

Unlike the two opening-home losses that left behind a sour taste, there were nothing but good feelings in the locker room this time, and in one corner in particular. Long after some of his teammates had already showered, dressed and left for home, Burns was still walking around in his uniform pants, not quite ready yet to leave Sunday behind.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.