Bryce Young knows how to stand tall when it matters most

There are big games, there are epochal games, and then there’s the Iron Bowl. The apex of Auburn vs. Alabama, the most vicious rivalry in college sports — which makes it one of the most vicious rivalries in all of sports — the Iron Bowl creates legends, demolishes pretenders, etches legacies in stone. You play the game with a spine of steel, or you don’t show your face in Alabama for a generation.

Back in 2021, Bryce Young, then all of 20 years old, awaited a snap in his own end zone, his feet on the “R” in AUBURN, with 95 seconds left on the clock. His Alabama Crimson Tide trailed three-TD underdog Auburn by a touchdown, and in that moment, he was facing more pressure than most of us will in a lifetime. (Would you like to be reminded for the rest of your life of your abject failure when you were 20? Exactly.)

Young didn’t fail. He thrived. He began engineering a magnificent drive, one that included a third-and-10 conversion from the Alabama 3, a fourth-and-7 conversion, and a third-and-10 go route that ended with Ja’Corey Brooks toe-tapping a touchdown in the end zone to tie the game. Four — yes, four — overtimes later, Young hit John Metchie III — now with the Texans — for a heart-stopping road victory that cemented Young’s eventual Heisman win and kept the Tide alive for a playoff berth.

So, yeah, once you’ve been through hellfire like that, the prospect of a September matchup against, say, the Atlanta Falcons doesn’t seem quite so daunting.

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Young, now 22, has taken his talents a few hundred miles east of Tuscaloosa. He arrives in Carolina as the No. 1 overall draft pick, leaving behind one of the most stable environments in football and walking into pretty much its polar opposite. Over the past five years, five different quarterbacks have led the Panthers in passing — trivia Q, can you name all five? — and ever-more-impatient team owner David Tepper is expecting a lot out of this new regime. The Panthers have drifted since the end of the Cam Newton era, and that 15-1 Super Bowl season seems a lot longer ago than 2015.

(Trivia answer, working backward from last year: Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Teddy Bridgewater, Kyle Allen, Newton.)

Bryce Young (9) is towered over by his fellow quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Jake Luton. (John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Young has dealt with in-game pressure. Now he has to reckon with organizational pressure, cultural pressure, which is something he never experienced under Nick Saban at Alabama. The Panthers are one franchise name change from being a completely new team. In addition to Young, Carolina will roll out a new head coach in Frank Reich, a new running back in Miles Sanders, a new tight end in Hayden Hurst, and two new marquee receivers in Adam Thielen and DJ Chark Jr.

Reich set the tone early by doing away with any pretense of a QB controversy. “When we decided to pick Bryce,” Reich said at the start of training camp, “we imagined and saw the vision that we’d be standing here today saying he’s QB1.”

The coronation removed unnecessary drama from the Panthers’ training camp — nobody seriously thought Andy Dalton would be battling Young for a starting job — but also put all the pressure squarely on Young’s shoulders right from the jump.

“For me, it doesn’t change my approach: make sure that I take things day-by-day,” Young said. “There’s a lot that I want to keep growing in, keep improving in.”

Young’s demeanor is less “thundering alpha dog” and more “promising honor student on a field trip.” He maintains a beige every-dude persona; whether through tales of his days doing DoorDash delivery in Tuscaloosa or his love for Bojangles’ BoBerry biscuits, he’s as relatable as a multimillionaire NFL quarterback can be. (Plus, BoBerry biscuits are delicious.)

“Bryce will fool you now because he’s got this quiet demeanor,” Reich said. “But I like the way [Panthers GM] Scott [Fitterer] said it: ‘This is a grown man. This is a stinking grown man.’ He’s in control. He knows what he wants and how he wants it done, and I think that’s a good place to start from.”

Young’s entire persona — calm, analytical, unbothered — hues a whole lot closer to that of a golfer than a football player. Pulse-pounding motivational speeches and on-field exuberance are great, but the kind of emotional cool necessary to sink a 10-foot putt to win the Masters — or engineer a 12-play drive to win the most important game of the year — is what separates players like Young from taller, beefier classic-mold quarterbacks.

Like a golfer, Young also understands the importance of living in the moment, of putting an interception or a bad game behind him as soon as possible. He’s already running into moments of frustration at camp; last Saturday, he had difficulty executing a two-minute drill in time, and the Panther defense blunted and shut down his touchdown drives. Visibly frustrated on the field, he was able to bring a little more perspective a few minutes afterward.

“There are only two options at a certain point. Are you going to let it dwell, or are you going to let it affect you the next play? Or are you going to move on and get better?” he said after that performance. “So you’re constantly turning the page and turning the page.”

The only serious knock on Young remains his size, measured during the scouting combine at 5-foot-10, 204 pounds. (That’s down from measurements that generously listed him as tall as 6 feet at Alabama.) On the field, he’s visibly shorter than his teammates in the huddle, and he’ll spend his entire career answering questions about his frame — just the way he has all the way up to now.

He’ll also benefit from rules protecting quarterbacks from the moment they open their eyes in the morning until they lay their heads on the pillow at night. And very much unlike the last star quarterback to wear Carolina black-and-blue, he’ll be throwing the ball away rather than throwing his body into bone-shattering chaos.

“We want our quarterbacks to distribute the ball, be playmakers, be the Steph Curry,” Reich said Wednesday. “Be the Steph Curry. Just get the ball to these guys. Let them make plays for you.”

There’s certainly opportunity for Young to make an immediate positive impact in Carolina. With all the new faces on the sideline, and all the veteran talent at receiver — plus the fact that the Panthers play in the anemic NFC South — this could be a potent combination, or it could all crumble into 12-loss ruin.

Worth remembering, though: Many have doubted Young’s ability to rally a team before, and he’s proven them wrong. Just ask Auburn.

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