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Frankie Luvu "evolving," continuing to make plays

Frankie Luvu

CHARLOTTE — This is definitely a week when the Panthers could use a spark of electricity on defense, no matter where it comes from.

That makes it kind of a perfect situation for linebacker Frankie Luvu since he's a guy with a fully charged battery tattooed on his neck, perhaps the perfect representation of a player who is always on. The fifth-year linebacker continues to play a number of roles for the Panthers (at a pace like few in the league), and as he continues to grow from a former special teams player to one of the key members of this defense, he's showing that he can do it a number of ways.

"He earned that trust. He put a lot of time in. He started earning it as soon as he got here," veteran linebacker Shaq Thompson said when asked about Luvu's ability to do so many different things. "He's one of those guys who plays fast, plays physical; he's the Energizer bunny to this defense. He's a fast-twitch guy and just makes plays.

"Glad to have him as my brother, my uso."

Invoking Luvu's Samoan heritage (Uso is the word for "brother" in his native language) is part of the context around here, and when they shorten it to Uce (which rhymes with juice), it also shows an important side of Luvu.

But he's progressed beyond a guy who just runs around like a madman making plays on the punt team or firing guys up with the chants that became a touchstone for this defense.

He's doing it on the field.

After pushing through some injury issues early this season (perhaps the inevitable consequence of going from a previous season's worth of reps in his first four games), Luvu has settled into the role that may describe him best — playmaker.

He has 5.0 sacks and 40 tackles in the last five weeks, the only player in the NFL to hit both those benchmarks. He's also second on the team with 86 total tackles and he's eighth in the NFL with 13 tackles for a loss this season.

Frankie Luvu

And he's putting up numbers like that from different spots on the field.

Defensive coordinator Al Holcomb talks about the "evolution" of Luvu as a defensive player, and that's the best way to describe how he's slowly emerged as an all-around player.

He came out of college as a pure pass-rusher, went to the Jets and made a few plays in that way, but mostly was a special teams player. He came here to fill a similar role last season but ended up doing much more.

And when Thompson was sidelined for training camp while recovering from knee surgery, they stacked even more on Luvu's plate. He was out there in August playing middle linebacker, a position of responsibility that goes beyond just blasting in a straight line in one direction.

"I felt like I was going to be all around," Luvu said. "Al is putting me in those situations when Shaq was out during training camp, just kind of getting me to know all spots and the defense itself. I knew that and prepared myself for that. I'd say it's challenging. But I'm up for the challenge.

"It's obviously different being five yards off the ball and seeing the whole picture instead of just seeing the ball. It's been an eye-opener for me, it's a challenge, but I'm up for the challenge. Wherever they put me, said it since OTAs and training camp, whatever they want me to do, I'm going to learn it and do whatever I can."

In recent weeks, they've even sent him back to his roots more often, bringing him to the line of scrimmage and using him as a rusher. Part of that is out of necessity, as the Panthers haven't gotten consistent pressure out of anyone other than Brian Burns. So when they need to, they can throw the switch on Luvu, and he provides a bit of a charge.

"We like guys to be multiple positional players, and really his transition from being just a totally on-the-ball backer to an off-the-ball backer and then back to an on-the-ball backer, he's embraced that role," Holcomb said. "He's embraced that role. In fact, when you go back to OTAs and training camp, he was one of the guys who we lined up inside at Mike linebacker, giving them a bunch of reps, just cross-training guys constantly just so they really get a great feel for the overall defense.

"In my scheme of thinking, if you understand different parts of the defense, it'll make you a more complete player, and that's what Frankie's starting to evolve into. Frankie, just as an overall player, has a tenacity and a willingness to get to the football each and every play, so I think that just his mindset in terms of attacking the football is what makes Frankie special."

Holcomb has some experience in moving guys around until they find their spot. He was in Arizona when they were trying to turn Haason Reddick into a stand-up linebacker, and here last year when they turned him loose as strictly a pass-rusher. Reddick moved onto the Eagles in free agency, and left a void that has taken time to try to figure out (and they're still working through that). But giving Luvu a base of information on the entire scheme, and then knowing they can send him, offers a versatility this defense needs.

"You start to look at your players and say, OK, what are their strengths? And what did they do really well?" Holcomb said. "So when you look at a player like Frankie, you say, 'OK, well, one of his strengths is setting the edge, you know, rushing the passer, but hey, he can also play off the ball,' and his progression and recognition is good. He does a nice job and coverage for us understanding route concepts and things of that nature. So I think as you build a defense, you just start to shape it with the pieces you have and then try to accentuate and play to those guys' strengths."

Lately, that means getting him back to rushing more. Thompson laughed when asked about that because there's something different about Luvu when he's set on a fixed path, a guy well-suited to seek-and-destroy missions.

"I know he likes to be on the line. Sets edges, physical," Thompson said. "He's starting to feel himself, starting to understand and fly around and have fun. He's one of those players. He's smart, he's intelligent, but he's also one of those guys you've got to let go and go play ball.

"I tell Frankie, go play you; I'll make you right. And he goes and has fun."

There are things that aren't as fun for Luvu. He laughed this week and admitted winter weather isn't necessarily his favorite. He routinely shows up for summer practices shirtless and barefoot and carrying his jersey and cleats, so temperatures that dip into the 30s aren't really his deal. He recalled his first experience in Pullman, Washington, when a 17-year-old freshman from American Samoa saw snow for the first time.

"That winter, I came in during winter conditioning, and it was snowing, and I fell in love with it one day," he said. "That was the first time and the last time I loved the snow. I was like, I'm done with that."

But like the rest of them, he knows that weather is one of those things interim coach Steve Wilks refers to as an "it," and you can't let "it" get the best of you, whatever "it" happens to be.

And now, with the pressure on the Panthers to make the rest of this season matter, they need someone on the defense to make plays. Over the course of this season, Luvu has shown he can provide that spark.

"When I think about kind of the evolution of Frankie Luvu, I go back to the first Atlanta game last year, (which) was really one of the first times he played off the ball and did a nice job, and fit the gaps and did all those kinds of things," Holcomb said. "But we always felt as a defensive staff that Frankie could get us out of a pinch, so to speak, if we got into a situation where we needed an extra rusher.

"You know, he loves to do that. He loves to rush and game it up and do some different things there."

That's what he does. And they need it now, more than ever.

Carolina leads the all-time series with Detroit, 7-3.