Josh Norman: From late-round draft pick to shutdown cornerback

Former Coastal Carolina head coach David Bennett (right) knew that Josh Norman (left) had what it takes to make the NFL, but even he is surprised by how dominant Norman has become.

Charles Slate (Myrtle Beach Sun-

David Bennett knew a Norman brother would make the big leap from Coastal Carolina to the NFL. The former coach of the Chanticleers, however, thought it would be Marrio, and not Josh, who now stars as the shutdown corner for the perfect Carolina Panthers.

"Josh didn’t receive any scholarship offers and decided to go to Horry Georgetown Tech," Norman’s collegiate head coach David Bennett told FOX Sports in a recent phone interview. "He lived with his brother, Marrio, who played for us at Coastal. He went over to Tech for a year then he came over to Coastal. Marrio was the one who was supposed to go the pros."

Like Josh, Marrio played defensive back for the Chanticleers. He was with the team from 2004-08, earning first team All-Big South honors in 2007. Marrio Norman went undrafted and only had one opportunity in the NFL level, spending a few weeks with the Baltimore Ravens during training camp in 2014. Marrio has played for several franchises in the CFL and AFL, and most recently he spent the 2015 regular season in the AFL with the Cleveland Gladiators.

BECKHAM CAUSES TROUBLE

For Josh, when he first embarked on the college journey, his passion and major were theater.

"He loves acting," Bennett said. "He realized he couldn’t do both with football and theater, working behind the scene, and he changed majors to become a communication major. The football field has become his stage. And it did back then."

After this weekend’s dance with Odell Beckham Jr., one would have to wonder if Josh Norman’s specialty is drama.

Once Josh made the decision to focus his efforts on football, it didn’t take long for Bennett to recognize that he had something special.

During Josh’s true freshman season, he made seven starts and played in all 12 games. In his first game, he recorded an interception. He finished the season with nine pass breakups and two picks.

"He did well immediately," Bennett said. "You don’t see kids that are 6-foot-2, 180-185 pounds that can run and compete the way he can. We ended up putting him on scholarship."

During his sophomore season, Norman turned it up. He earned first team All-Big South and third-team All-American honors with eight interceptions and 15 passes defensed. He followed up as a junior with another All-Big South honor, and Josh finished his career at Coastal Carolina with 11 interceptions and 23 passes defensed.

Josh Norman has emerged among the NFL’s elite at the cornerback position in 2015, and his ascension has come out of nowhere. After running an official 4.66 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine — a time considered slow for his position — Josh fell into the fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft, where he was selected by the Panthers with the 143rd overall pick. There were 14 cornerbacks selected before Norman, and you can bet he knows the name of every one of them.

The Panthers have used Norman on shadow coverage against an opponent’s best outside wide receiver in seven games this season, according to Pro Football Focus’ Mike Clay. When they have targeted Norman, he has allowed just half of his passes to be completed and opposing quarterbacks have a league-worst 49.6 passer rating when targeting him, per PFF. Quarterbacks have started to throw away from Norman. This is nothing new for him.

"If somebody was really good, we’d put Josh over on him," Bennett said. "We’d also put him to the wide side of the field. He was our premier cover corner and people would throw away from him, so he would get bored and start baiting quarterbacks to throw his way."

Norman didn’t play a full complement of snaps in 2014, but he was much better than people realized. On 647 defensive snaps, Josh allowed just 46.6 percent of targets against him for 291 yards, one touchdown and a 53.2 opposing quarterback rating, per Pro Football Focus. The Panthers were wise to this and hoped to extend Josh’s contract this past offseason, as Josh is set to become a free agent after the 2015 season. Josh chose to pass up on the offer and play out the season for $1.54 million.

"We were texting in the preseason, and I heard he was offered a contract that he turned down" Bennett explained. "I told him to accept that before you end up in Cleveland. We want you to stay here. He said I’m 26 and I have one more shot at a contract. There’s corners making more money and I’m going to prove I’m as good (as) or better than they are."

If the 2015 season ended today, Norman would have accomplished his goal of proving to the NFL that he is as good as any cornerback in the league. That doesn’t mean he’s satisfied. Norman possesses rare traits in addition to his talent that show up with all truly elite players.

"He’s got such a high motor, he wants to prove that he’s the best there is," Bennett said. "We all knew he could play in the NFL, but he might be the only one who knew he could play as well as he’s played. He’s got passion drive and talent.

"He plays with a chip on his shoulder."