Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn was 5-7 in high school. How he blossomed into an NFL ‘steal’

Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn was 5-7 in high school. How he blossomed into an NFL ‘steal’
(Source: Southern Illinois Athletics)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Charlotte Observer) - When Jeremy Chinn was a senior at Fishers High School, outside of Indianapolis, Marty Rodgers traveled 13 hours to watch Chinn play.

Rodgers, North Dakota’s safeties coach at the time, saw a 6-foot-2, muscular defensive back and was perplexed.

“I didn’t understand why he didn’t have any offers,” Rodgers said.

Chinn had the grades. He was respectful. “Yes sir. No sir.” On film, he had the talent. He was tough. Had traps that mirrored former WWE wrestler Goldberg. And he had the speed of a top D-I prospect.

But the only school willing to offer him a scholarship was Southern Illinois. He was a zero-star prospect.

His high school coach said it was because most college scouts who saw him early in his high school career witnessed a 5-7, 135-pound kid, who didn’t hit his growth spurt until his junior and senior seasons: “I said if this kid grows a little bit, he’s going to be special,” Rick Wimmer said.

Chinn grew. A lot. And now, at 6-3, 221 pounds, no one is doubting the Panthers’ rookie safety who Carolina traded up for in the second round of April’s NFL draft.

“Everything about him just checked all the boxes,” Panthers’ GM Marty Hurney said in April. “He was a guy that we liked from the first time we put eyes on him, and he impressed us more and more as the process went through.”

Panthers’ coach Matt Rhule said it was Chinn’s combination of size and speed that impressed him most.

“You don’t find guys that are that big that run that fast,” Rhule said.

Chinn, who signed his rookie contract and reported to Panthers’ camp Monday, is a player to watch in camp next week. With a new coaching staff and a number of new players in the Panthers’ secondary, he could be counted on immediately for the Panthers.

Friends and former coaches, including Wimmer and Rodgers (who eventually became the safeties coach at Southern Illinois), think he’s ready now.

“His dedication and preparation is by far above everybody,” Rodgers said.

‘ALWAYS LOVED TO WIN’

Chinn was often one of the shortest on his teams. He was also always the toughest, and has been since he started playing football in second grade.

His father, James Chinn, said his young son hated playing flag football because he loved to hit other kids.

Whether it was football, basketball, fishing or playing cards with his father, the elder Chinn said his son “always loved to win.”

His father isn’t surprised his son is now in the NFL. Chinn had worked for this and had since childhood, when his father taught him the “five P’s.”

“Proper planning prevents poor performance,” James Chinn, a former safety at Southeast Missouri State, said. Jeremy took that and ran with it.

From his youth football coach to his college coaches, they all say Chinn is soft-spoken and one of the most respectful players you’ll meet. But on the football field, he has a mean streak.

Because Chinn was undersized in high school, he had to utilize other talents to compensate. Toughness. Speed. He was relentless.

When he finally grew five inches from his sophomore to his junior season, it caused pain in his knees and he struggled as a junior. He grew two more inches as a senior and had the best season of his career. He finished with four interceptions during his senior season, a Fishers school record.

Once he enrolled at Southern Illinois, his coaches immediately recognized his talent and desire to be elite. He hurt his shoulder in the summer before his freshman season and was out for the first four weeks of the season. So the coaches put him in the press box and gave him a headset so he could communicate with the coaches on the field.

“We valued his mental capacity,” Rodgers said. “He’d say, ‘such and such is too deep.’”

Jason Petrino, Chinn’s defensive coordinator at Southern Illinois, said when he met Chinn for the first time, he had just been added to the staff. Chinn, then a senior, told him he wanted to learn the playbook. He said it was the first time a player had ever done that.

When Chinn came back a few days later, he knew every play and all of the terminology.

“I was blown away,” Petrino said. “He loves everything about football. He loves the process and preparation as much as he loves the games.”

Chinn’s knowledge of the playbook showed on the field as a senior. Despite missing two games because of injuries, Chinn finished the 2019 season with 71 tackles, four interceptions and a fumble recovery. He took on the challenge of covering the opposing team’s best player.

He impressed most scouts and coaches — especially Rhule — with his performance in the Senior Bowl going up against some of the best seniors in the country.

“... I think the things that (defensive coordinator) Phil (Snow) and his defense are going to be able to do with him — he is kind of a position-less player right now,” Rhule said, adding that the Panthers can use him in multiple places.

‘EVERYTHING OUT OF ME’

Chinn has never forgotten his zero-star rating as a recruit. The motivation of shaking that label has driven him to the NFL.

The day he was drafted, he was sitting by his mother on the couch of their living room surrounded by friends. His phone rang. It was a Washington number, he said, and he wasn’t sure who it was.

“My heart started racing,” Chinn said in April.

He can be heard on a video saying, “Sir, thank you so much.” He puts his head in his palm. His mother, Nichelle Wheeler, wearing a red Delta Sigma Theta sorority shirt, sits at the edge of their sofa as if ready to hear the great news.

“It was Matt Rhule and he asked me if I was ready to be a Panther,” Chinn said. “Here I am.”

Chinn smiles wide, and he covers his face with his shirt. Then he watches the television and waits for his name to be called next. When he hears it, his family and friends celebrate around him as he’s overcome with emotion.

After the pick was announced, Chinn got a couple of endorsements from some well-known safeties.

Kansas City Chiefs pro bowl safety, Tyrann Mathieu, tweeted Chinn was an “athletic DOGG.” Future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson tweeted that Chinn was “looking like a steal.”

“Coming into a program that just believes in me and trades up to get a guy like me is something I’m excited about,” Chinn said. “For them to take a chance on me, Carolina’s going to get everything out of me.”