CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The University of West Georgia is tucked away in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains about 40 miles from downtown Atlanta and 11 miles from the Alabama state line. It’s not a place you would happen upon unless you had a good reason to go there.
The Carolina Panthers did.
It was in this town off the Little Tallapoosa River that the Panthers, upon the recommendation of area scout Jeff Beathard, found Alex Armah.
Few outside of Carrollton, Georgia, knew much about Armah before Saturday, when the Panthers selected the defensive end/linebacker/tight end/H-back in the sixth round of the NFL draft.
And, oh, they didn’t select him to play any of those positions.
The Panthers projected the 6-foot-2, 253-pound player known as "Double A" to play fullback, a position he really hadn’t played since high school. They see him potentially as the next Mike Tolbert, a three-time Pro Bowler (2013, ’15, ’16) for the Panthers who now plays for the Buffalo Bills.
They see him as a lead blocker for first-round draft pick Christian McCaffrey, a receiving threat out of the backfield as a fullback or H-back, a wrecking ball who can help protect quarterback Cam Newton and a potential special teams star.
Armah admittedly is a project, but one with a lot of upside. That’s why the Panthers used a draft pick on him when many had him projected as an undrafted free agent. That’s why on Tuesday they released fullback Devon Johnson, last year’s project as an undrafted free agent.
“The total package as a human being,’’ said former West Georgia coach Will Hall, who became the offensive coordinator at Louisiana-Lafayette in January. “He’s the hardest worker in the weight room. He does great in school.
“He’s got a great attitude. He’s explosive, he’s strong, he’s unselfish, he’s not afraid to lead and get after people.’’
Hall admits this all sounds too good to be true, “but you can’t say anything bad about him.’’
Armah was on the radar of several teams, coming from a school that never had a player drafted until the New York Jets took defensive end Dylan Donahue late in the fifth round Saturday, followed by Armah 11 picks later.
Armah visited Minnesota, Seattle, Indianapolis, the New York Giants and the New York Jets. But the Panthers were the only team to go to West Georgia and put Armah through a private workout, thanks to Beathard’s recommendation in late February.
“So we’re through the fullback list and we’re getting ready to go to the wides [receivers] and Jeff says, ‘Wait a minute, Dave. There’s a guy on the back board we’ve got to talk about,’’’ Panthers GM Dave Gettleman recalled.
Some teams saw Armah as a linebacker, where he played his freshman season. Others had him as an H-back.
Few teams utilize the fullback the way the Panthers do, and because the options at fullback in the draft were slim, they took a chance.
“First of all, he’s hard to find on tape,’’ Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “You find him, and then you watch him, and you see the things that he does and they translate very nicely to what we do.’’
Armah, whose father is from Ghana, was a defensive star his first three seasons at West Georgia. Because of his high school background, he was asked to help at tight end and H-back before his senior season after a key player became an academic casualty.
“He said, ‘Coach, whatever I can do to help the team, that’s what I want to do,’’’ West Georgia offensive coordinator Sam Greg said.
Armah made many big plays offensively, but one stood out to Greg. It happened against Valdosta State.
“We have a route run off the safety into boundary where we give the tight end the option to run a post or a corner route based on leverage of the safety,’’ Greg said. “Man, he got a good release off the line and crossed the safety over and dropped him on his feet.
“He just dropped him right there and caught a [41-yard] touchdown pass with the game on the line. To be so big, he’s really explosive and really athletic.’’
Armah wasn’t invited to the NFL combine, where most of the top college players go to display their skills. But at his pro day, he ran a 4.68 40-yard dash and recorded other measurables on par with former Harvard fullback Kyle Juszczyk, a fourth-round pick by Baltimore in 2013.
Juszczyk recently signed a four-year, $21 million deal with San Francisco that made him the highest paid fullback in the NFL.
“He made an immediate impact [at tight end] because he was bigger and stronger than everybody,’’ Greg said of Armah. “He would pretty much smash them.’’
Armah grew up a big fan of Michael Vick when Vick played quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons. Now he’ll get the chance to block for and catch passes from Atlanta native Newton, whose career he has followed.
“I’m excited to see him and Cam and Christian McCaffrey in the backfield,’’ Greg said. “That’ll be awesome.’’
The Panthers hope so. That’s why they made a special trip to a place few NFL teams go.
“Sometimes,’’ Gettleman said, “you’ve just got to kind of think outside the box a little bit.’’