The Panthers rookie left tackle not only has to be ready to start against the Browns on Sunday, but he also has to be ready to face one of the league's best defensive ends in Myles Garrett. Since all eyes will be on Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield in his first game against his former team, keeping Mayfield on his feet will be of the utmost importance.
That's why the Panthers have been pushing Ekwonu against another of the league's top pass-rushers in Brian Burns throughout camp, and those two have engaged in a camp-long battle to make each other better.
"Burns is a fine a football player; Ickey's very fortunate to have a player like that to go against," Panthers offensive line coach James Campen said with a grin.
That's empirically true, of course, but Campen's holding back a little, because he has high expectations for the No. 6 overall pick. Campen knows that there are lessons to be learned along the way, but that the lessons are for a reason. That's why Campen was on all fours during practice recently, using one hand to keep Ekwonu's foot planted on the Earth while he took a pass set, barking instructions the whole time, emphasizing the need for fundamentals.
Ekwonu's job is important. That's why they're throwing everything at him to help him get it right. There have been some hiccups this preseason. There will be more. They're still encouraged by the trajectory of this year's first-round pick.
"He's in his progression, doing something, improving on it the next day, and moving on to the next thing. It's a progression for him," Campen said. "The thing about Ickey, once he gets it, he's going to have it.
"Ickey Ekwonu is going to be a hell of a football player; you watch."
That's their plan. The hope is that it works out similarly to the last time they drafted a tackle in the top 10 and introduced him to an elite pass-rusher on his first day on the job. In the early 2000s, that was Jordan Gross, who still shakes his head when he thinks about the reps he took against future Hall of Famer Julius Peppers in practice each day.
"I'm not going to say I won all the time as a rookie, that's for sure," Gross said with a laugh. "With Pep, I remember being in awe of his size and strength, and speed. I had never been in the presence of anyone like that in my life. There were some massive moments of self-doubt.
"The first time we were in a team drill across from each other, he bull-rushed me, and I ended up flat on my back, right at the feet of (quarterback) Rodney Peete. I remember looking up and thinking, 'Oh, God, I'm a bust; I'm never going to get any better. If everything is going to be like this, I've got no chance.'"
As it turns out, Gross did have a chance, eventually. He made three Pro Bowls and was the first-team All-Pro tackle in 2008, so it's not as if he was overmatched in every rep on every day (though Peppers could physically overmatch practically anyone on the planet). But Gross found out, as Ekwonu is learning now, that learning how to compete against someone more polished, someone talented in a different way, was only helpful to him in his own development.
"You eventually start to catch up to the speed of the get-off, the efficiency of his inside moves, and you give yourself a chance," Gross said of working against Peppers. "I remember when Pep first went to bull-rush me, and then he stutters his feet, crosses me over like he's playing basketball at Chapel Hill, and I just opened up like a gate. But when I eventually figured out what he was doing, the first time I got that inside hand on his chest and slowed him down, I was like, 'I did it.' The confidence that gave me that I was actually improving was tremendous.
"It's easy as an offensive lineman, like a quarterback or a cornerback, when something bad happens to not let it out of your head. You hold yourself to a high standard, given where you're drafted. But you also have to be realistic and realize you're playing against professionals now. Failure is going to be a common occurrence, but it's also not the end of the world. Learning how to do something good and poorly on the next play is a balance. Some guys couldn't get a bad play out of their heads; one play they're great, one play the sky is falling."
That's the other way Burns is helping Ekwonu, by pointing out to him as they go what he's getting right and what he's getting wrong.
When Ekwonu was partly responsible for a couple of sacks in New England during the second preseason game, he acknowledged the problems immediately.
"I'm definitely a little disappointed in how I played," Ekwonu said in the locker room after that game just over two weeks ago. "Giving up two sacks, that's not the standard I want to play to, obviously."
So as soon as it happened, he and Burns caught up on the sidelines, and Burns started explaining what the Patriots were trying to do that night. (Burns had spent a half-hour after a joint practice discussing pass-rush moves with Matthew Judon that week, so he knows of what he speaks).
"He asks me what did I see, and pretty much tries to use me as a resource to get into the mind of who he's going against," Burns said. "Like if I tell him, you overset him, that's why he took the inside, that helps him a ton. I mean, he's never played D-end, so it's insight on why certain people do certain things."
That night, he showed Ekwonu on the sidelines the hand placement of different moves, the difference between what a bull rush looks like versus a rip move, and the importance of keeping a solid base. (That's also why Campen was practically nailing Ekwonu's foot to the floor that day back in Charlotte.)
And as camp wore on, Burns saw progress.
"Yeah, I can see the development," Burns said. "His feet have calmed down. He's not as antsy. He's more patient, and that's hard to come by in a tackle; it's tough. There's some good rushers in this league, so I've seen that improvement in his feet."
Ekwonu has acknowledged the need to get better, as well as the help Burns provides.
During training camp, those one-on-one drills against Burns were the first stage of what he's going to see this season.
There was a particular day early on, when Burns put Ekwonu in a blender. When he spun him to the outside on the first rep, and the inside on the second, it was a glimpse into the quickness the rookie will see this year (in Ekwonu's defense, Burns has one of the quickest first steps in the league, and has worked to develop his own technique, so he does that to a lot of people).
Those pass-rush drills are an easy barometer, if not always a full and accurate way to describe the current conditions. And for Ekwonu as he learns, those drills against Burns are like the difference between weather and climate, a temporary condition that becomes part of a greater whole.
"For a tackle, it's harder to win those reps than during a game, if you paint with a broad brush," Gross said.
That's the generally accepted consensus on one-on-one pass-rushing drills, which are designed to evaluate players in a vacuum. There's no help from a guard. There's no quarterback calling a screen. It's you against the guy in front of you.
Campen, who played eight years in the league and has been coaching offensive linemen in the NFL for nearly two decades, does not accept that premise. He does not accept it in explicit terms, which we cannot reprint on a family website.
"I disagree with that," he eventually says, after it is made clear the degree to which he disagrees. "I know the snap count, I know my set, I know the launch point of the quarterback; at worst, all I have to do is be a speed bump between the quarterback, and he can run over me. To me, if guys say that, it's a cheap cop-out. I don't see our defensive linemen, they're not rushing to a B-gap, they're not running from here to that line.
"To me, someone's going to win, and someone's going to lose, and you better be on the top half of that. Let's face it, everybody can talk about twists and all this pressure and (stuff), but it's a lineman's ability to win his one-on-one block at the most crucial of times. That's what wins games. At the end of the day, the players that are really, really good at pass-blocking, they win one-on-one."
And while the scoreboard on those drills likely favors Burns right now the way it favored Peppers over Gross nearly 20 years ago, it is not lopsided now, nor was it then.
Veteran pass-rush specialist Don Johnson (39 years of coaching experience) agrees with Campen that his defensive linemen aren't automatically at an advantage. And he's seen signs from Ekwonu that suggest growth as well, which helps both players.
"Absolutely," Johnson said. "Ickey will learn from the experienced guy, and Burns as a young guy, he doesn't really know how Ickey maneuvers, so he's got to respond to learn how to attack. That's good for both of them."
The contrast in styles is also evident. Burns trades in speed and technique, Ekwonu in power. When they work the inside run game in practice, you see the advantage tilt the other direction. But getting Ekwonu better at the stuff he's not already good at has been the job this preseason.
Personalities come into play, too. Burns and Ekwonu both burn hot. Gross and Peppers were different by nature than these two, and as time passed, the work between them became less about the daily battle than the long war.
That's not the stage these kids are at now.
"Burns is an aggressive guy, and Ickey's obviously an aggressive guy, so I imagine those weren't the brother-in-law reps we were getting in Pep's eighth year and my seventh," Gross said. "It's probably slightly different."
But the lessons are the same. And heading into the opener, the Panthers hope they're learned as well as they were before.
Carolina is 4-2 against Cleveland all-time.