New Panthers WR Jalen Coker knows things change in NFL. Why he’s up for the challenge

What was the most memorable part of Jalen Coker’s most memorable catch in college?

Depends on who you ask.

If you ask Coker himself, the newly signed rookie wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers might mention something about how he “lives for the big moments.” And this surely qualified as one. It was Week 2 of the 2022 season. Holy Cross (FCS) on the road against Buffalo (FBS). Time had expired. Game was tied. Ball at midfield. Holy Cross snapped the ball and quarterback Matthew Sluka danced around in the backfield a bit before chucking up a prayer in Coker’s direction.

If you ask wide receivers coach Rich Gunnell, he might mention how stacked the opposing secondary was that day. Several defensive backs had transferred into the Buffalo program that summer from major programs — like Arkansas and Louisville and Florida — and on this play all of them were draped over Coker as the ball descended back to Earth.

And if you ask head coach Bob Chesney, he’d say the catch itself was amazing but the celebration afterward was what stuck with him. Coker, whose grandmother had recently passed, was mobbed by teammates in the end zone before running to his grandfather for a big hug.

“After the game, they all ran over, and (the fans) were hanging over the fence because you couldn’t come down on the field,” Chesney recalled to The Charlotte Observer last week.

He later added: “That was the play where he sort of gets revealed to the world.”

It’s approaching two years since that catch, that coming-out party for Coker. And his unveiling, in many ways, hasn’t stopped.

If anything, it ramped up this past year.

By the end of the 2023 season, the 6-foot-3, 214-pound standout led all of college football in touchdown receptions (15), and he concluded his career at Holy Cross as the program’s all-time leader in receiving touchdowns and receiving yards. In February, he notched a 42.5 in the vertical leap, which was tied for highest among all players at the NFL Scouting Combine. And earlier this month, he was signed by the Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent — news that caught the attention of some pretty prominent NFL personalities. Steve Smith, one of the greatest receivers in Panthers history, compared Coker’s potential to that of NBA legend on his podcast. Boston sports fan and founder of The Ringer, Bill Simmons, was also effusive: “This kid is a badass,” Simmons tweeted of Coker. “Was hoping the Pats would draft him!”

There’s still a lot of work ahead for Coker — and for the rest of the undrafted free agents trying to make their 53-man rosters by the conclusion of the preseason in late August. Life in the NFL, for so many big fish traveling to football’s deepest ocean, tends to change things.

But for someone like Coker, that doesn’t mean he has to change himself.

“I have a chance to compete here,” Coker told The Observer on Saturday. “Not even make a spot, not even make the practice squad, but I just have a chance to compete. I have a chance to get better here. I feel like the vets here are great people. The new coaching staff is starting to build a new culture, kind of like what they were trying to do at Holy Cross. ...

“So this is something I want to be a part of.”

After play resumed Holy Cross’s Jalen Coker runs out of bounds while Boston College’s Amari Jackson pursues on Saturday September 9, 2023 at Alumni Stadium in Newton.
After play resumed Holy Cross’s Jalen Coker runs out of bounds while Boston College’s Amari Jackson pursues on Saturday September 9, 2023 at Alumni Stadium in Newton.

Dave Canales is ‘really excited’ about him

On paper, Coker and Carolina seem to make a lot of sense.

The Panthers entered the 2024 offseason looking to add playmakers around quarterback Bryce Young, who struggled in his rookie season as the Panthers plummeted to a league-worst 2-15 record.

They did some of that work in the draft. The franchise traded up into the first round to pick USC wideout Xavier Legette; they went out to get the best running back in the draft in Jonathon Brooks in Round 2; and in the fourth round they took Ja’Tavion Sanders, a “new-age” tight end who said on Saturday that he wants to become the next Greg Olsen. But there were still depth issues to be addressed at receiver after the draft, so they went out and signed a pair of undrafted free agents at receiver in Coker and Sam Pinckney, a 6-foot-4 wideout from Coastal Carolina.

Head coach Dave Canales sees a lot of positives in Coker’s game. He said he was intrigued by Coker’s “instincts” and “size” and “top-of-route ability to separate” — and that “the guy really does have a cool skill set that he brings to us,” and “let’s see what he looks like against NFL talent, but I’m really excited about him.”

What’s more compelling? Canales, a longtime assistant under Pete Carroll in Seattle, knows the value of taking chances on undrafted free agents. He’s been on coaching staffs that have seen UDFAs initially earn roster spots as special teamers before capitalizing on the chances they got at their positions.

“I think we played with five undrafted free agents in Super Bowl 49,” Canales said. “Doug Baldwin, who certainly made a name for himself as a receiver. He played as a rookie. But he was on all the (special teams) coverages. Played on all the teams. Ricardo Lockette. Jermaine Kearse was another one. Bryan Walters, who had return value. And Chris Matthews, who was a 6-foot-5, 230-pound wide receiver was a matchup on punt rush.

“So we love those guys. ... This is how you earn a helmet to play for us during the season. So I’m excited to see who those guys are.”

Mar 2, 2024; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Holy Cross wide receiver Jalen Coker (WO03) during the 2024 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 2, 2024; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Holy Cross wide receiver Jalen Coker (WO03) during the 2024 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Jalen Coker: ‘This kid is just different’

Canales isn’t alone in his initial impressions of Coker. In fact, ask enough people who know the 22-year-old receiver well, and they’ll all give different examplesof when they discovered he had the potential to be special.

Coker, 22, began his path to the Panthers in Sterling, Virginia. He was raised by athletes. His mother, Jenny, walked on to the University of Virginia basketball team. His father (and die-hard Panther fan), Jamal, is in the Hall of Fame at Fort Dorchester High School in South Carolina as a two-sport athlete.

When Jalen was 7 — before the PeeWee games and Little League games and all the little moments parents remember with pride — Jamal was shooting hoops with his son one day, and when he dunked the ball, his son’s face would light up with wonder.

Young Jalen then said something Jamal would never forget.

“He said, ‘I can’t wait, I’m going to be just like you,’” Jamal recalled. “And I’m like, ‘No, man. I can’t wait. Because you’re going to be better than me.’ ... And to just see where he’s come to now. All the trials and tribulations. All that work that he’s put in, the ups and downs, the losses and the wins — it’s amazing.”

Holy Cross’s Jalen Coker hauls in a pass for a first down over Merrimack’s Darion McKenzie in 2023.
Holy Cross’s Jalen Coker hauls in a pass for a first down over Merrimack’s Darion McKenzie in 2023.

Chesney, the coach of Holy Cross during Coker’s four years there, agrees. He said he remembers speaking to his childhood friend Brett Veach (now the general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs), and that the two shared the same thought: “This kid is just different.”

“You coach players for so long, and you watch players do some great things, and then comes along this talent where, ‘Wow,’” Chesney said. “We’re going to help develop him, or we’re going to make sure he gets every single thing out of himself that he should. But ultimately, there are things in here we can’t coach.”

Coker stayed at Holy Cross all four years in a day and age when transferring up is more rampant than ever. He said he did so because he was comfortable with the staff and his teammates and felt like he always owed it to his upperclassmen to help sustain what Holy Cross was building. (The school won four Patriot League titles in the four years Coker was there.)

He truly separated himself his senior year, wide receivers coach Rich Gunnell said. In 2023, he finished with 59 receptions for 1,040 yards and 15 touchdowns — averaging 94.5 receiving yards a game.

Coker is humble off the field and isn’t a loud leader. But he has a quiet competitiveness that is what makes him so special, Gunnell said.

“He’s got an edge to him, which is always great to coach,” Gunnell said. He competed in college like he was “always gong to be the best player on the field, which a lot of times he was.” Gunnell then smiled: “Really all the time, now that I think about it.”

Again, Coker still has a lot to prove. As every rookie does. The reality, in the big ocean that is the NFL, that you are the best player every time you step out onto the field might change.

But it’s important to know: Coker doesn’t need to.

He’s built for the challenge.

“I don’t think he thinks too hard about it because I know he loves the game, and I think that simplifies a lot of things for him,” Jamal, his father, said. “Because he’s just having fun. And when he’s having fun, he can do amazing things.”