Like father, like son for Panthers' Proehl


It's the first round of the 2018 NFL draft and the Carolina Panthers are on the clock, looking seriously at selecting a wide receiver to replace the recently-retired Steve Smith.

"Who do you like?" general manager Dave Gettleman asks wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl from the war room deep in the bowels of Bank of America Stadium.

Proehl looks over his list.

"How about this kid from the University of North Carolina?," he says with a smile. "He's not the biggest (5-10, 170 pounds) receiver on our draft board, but he's great at getting in and out of cuts, creating separation and making plays. Good hands and deceivingly quick, too.

"He plays smart and he works hard. Reminds me of myself in a lot of ways."

Gettleman agrees. He makes the call to draft headquarters at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Commissioner Roger Goodell steps to the podium.

"And with the 28th pick," he says, "the Carolina Panthers select North Carolina wide receiver Austin Proehl."

Hey, it could happen.

Few would have imagined three years ago Ricky watching son Austin sign a scholarship to play for the Tar Heels, and that happened last Wednesday on national signing day.

So who's to say what will happen four years from now?

"That would be awesome," Ricky said when I gave him this made-up scenario. "If he continues to work hard and get stronger, he can be a great receiver."

Ricky played in four Super Bowls and won two during his 17 years as an NFL receiver. His fourth-quarter touchdown catch from Kurt Warner in the 1999 NFC Championship propelled the St. Louis Rams to the Super Bowl.

But nothing Ricky did as a coach or has done since as a coach compares to watching Austin, a senior at Charlotte's Providence High, sign with North Carolina. Proud father moments usually do outweigh individual accomplishments -- even if the father went to Wake Forest, an ACC rival of UNC.

"A year prior to this there wasn't a whole lot of options," Ricky said. "He worked his tail off in the offseason, went to some camps and opened some eyes."

Good coaching didn't hurt.

Austin is the first to tell you he wouldn't be where he is without the help of his father. Ricky taught his son the same secrets that Smith and other NFL receivers have benefited from over the years.

"I don't care how old you are," Smith told me this past season. "The information Ricky has you can use. I'll be able to use this when I'm at the rec league. It's football. It's using the advantage of what you have and using the disadvantages of the defense."

Austin used what his father taught to his advantage, catching 89 passes for 1,190 yards and eight touchdowns in helping Providence reach the playoffs this past season.

"He teaches me like I'm an NFL player," Austin said. "Getting in and out of cuts was the biggest thing. Obviously, I'm not the biggest guy out there. I'm not the 6-4 recruit a lot of big schools are looking for.

"He just told me if you are quick getting in and out of your cut, if you come back to the ball, you can make plays no matter how big you are."

Ricky (6-0, 190) wasn't your prototypical receiver either under today's Calvin Johnson standards when selected by the then-Phoenix Cardinals in the third round of the 1990 draft. But he set the team's rookie receiving record to begin a career that would end with 669 catches for 8,878 yards and 54 touchdowns.

Austin paid attention.

"My dad is the best in the game, at every level," he said. "It's been a great asset for me."

Life as an NFL coach often doesn't leave much time for family. But Ricky made sure he was there for most of Austin's official recruiting visits. He also was there with his wife Kelly when Austin signed with UNC.

And no, there was no pressure to attend Wake Forest.

"Obviously, he loves Wake," Austin said. "My mom went to Wake and she loves Wake. My grandfather is a big donor to Wake. My dad ... he knew Carolina was a great fit for me and he supported me in the whole process."

Four years from now, perhaps Ricky will get to evaluate Austin for that NFL draft like he is the current crop of receivers for this year's. The Panthers definitely are in a mode to draft a receiver, whether it's with the 28th overall pick where ESPN analyst Mel Kiper has them selecting Oregon State's Brandin Cooks or in a later round.

"I think we probably will draft somebody," said Ricky, not referring to a specific round. "I love that side of it, meeting a young kid and working him out and seeing what their talents are."

But nothing beats having the opportunity to work with his son to make him good enough for a college scholarship.

Except, that is, drafting him.