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After "humbling" second season, Ikem Ekwonu ready to take advantage of a new offense

Ikem Ekwonu

CHARLOTTE—After Ikem Ekwonu rookie season, the Matthews native felt poised to take over the NFL. The former first round selection had started all 17 games in 2022 and proven his worth as the sixth overall pick.

Then 2023 happened. Granted, it was a season and performance that one no person should be beholden to as an indicator of their ability. But for Ekwonu, not only the 2-15 record, but also his own performance, was a sobering reality check of his own hubris.

"I feel like I last year, I didn't take advantage of the resources that I had available to me. I feel like I kind of just, I guess riding the coattails of that rookie season a little bit," Ekwonu admitted Wednesday, following the Panthers fifth OTA practice. "I (thought) I was at a place where I, I just wasn't. So, I wasn't afraid this year to reach out, ask for some help, go over with the guys.

"I don't want to speak on last year too much if I'm being honest, but obviously very humbling experience."

New Panthers head coach Dave Canales brought Joe Gilbert and Harold Goodwin with him from Tampa Bay, as offensive line coach and run game coordinator respectively. As Ekwonu has learned to "reach out" more this year, he's spent time in film study with coaches, looking over moments from last year that the staff felt were most indicative of where the third year tackle could grow.

"It included some film study from last year," Ekwonu said of the meetings. "Just shoring up some inconsistencies on that tape…just looking at things I did good, things I did wrong, and just making sure I'm working out the kinks.

"When you're looking at the entire body of work that was last year, there was things that came up time and time again that I didn't fix as the season went on, so it's definitely a big priority for me."

That self-evaluation and critique is emblematic of Ekwonu's new approach to this season and his own game but also a reminder for the whole offense and team. Never at any point during the 2023 season did he feel "like any issue we had last year wasn't fixable. It never went back to character or anything like that." It was just a matter of accepting they were there and then addressing them.

Addressing any issue has been the focus of Ekwonu's offseason, spurning from a conversation with Canales that reinforced all the first round left tackle could be to this offense.

"It was just showing his confidence that he had in me, telling me that early, it just kind of just set up the offseason for me, really just telling me things I can focus on, making sure I can be the best player I could be. So definitely appreciate that conversation," Ekwonu said.

And as Canales' offense has been implemented, it's become clear to all involved, the playbook is tackle friendly. The scheme relies heavily on a rush-first attack, supplemented by play-action and bootlegs, according to Canales. All approaches that the head coach knows will benefit his left tackle.

"I think Ickey, he's been doing a great job. What does he do best? He is a mauler, and we're going to run the ball and I think when guys are able to just be aggressive and play to their nature, it gives them a lot of confidence in everything else that they do. So, I'm excited about where he's at and what we're going to be doing this year."

If the 2023 season was rough for Ekonwu, the subsequent offseason has been humbling. Examining all he was, all he'd become and all he could be, then marrying the three to determine his next steps. It's been abrasive at times, hopeful at others, but regardless, it's produced an Ikem Ekwonu more prepared to take on a new offense and a new season.

Said Ekwonu: "Honestly, it was a tough year last year, struggling in a lot of aspects and sometimes it's hard not to get down on yourself, but having some of these guys in your corner to always lift you up, to show you that's not necessarily who you are—you might make a mistake.

"You might play bad, but it doesn't mean you're a bad player. So, I got to have some of those guys and kind of just keep that going in my head, that helps a lot."

View photos of the Panthers' OTAs on Wednesday.

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