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Frankie Luvu has opened eyes with his career season

Frankie Luvu

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers had some evidence that Frankie Luvu could make plays in the past.

But as the year has progressed, Luvu has been able to do even more than they imagined.

Interim defensive coordinator Al Holcomb identified the veteran linebacker as one of the breakout players on this year's defense in light of his expanded role.

"I think Frankie Luvu has had a heck of a year," Holcomb said Thursday. "You know, he missed a couple of games early on in the year, but it's the tenacity and the speed in which he plays the game. I think he's been a factor for us in the run game and in the pass game.

"I think coming into the season, not a lot of people knew about Uce, and he's had a really positive impact on our defense this year."

The stats back that up, considering his career game against the Buccaneers. He had a personal-best 13 tackles and three tackles for loss, adding to an impressive season on both counts.

He's tied with teammate Brian Burns for fourth in the league with 17 tackles for a loss this year and has a career-high 105 tackles.

To Holcomb's point, part of the issue for Luvu early was availability. He had never been more than a bit player on defense and a core special teamer prior to this year. He played 277 snaps in the first four games, more defensive snaps than he had played in any of his three previous seasons. He then promptly missed Weeks 5 and 6, and they tried to manage his workload in the aftermath. But after three games of between two-thirds and three-quarters of the team's snaps, he's been out there almost every play.

Since Week 10, he's missed exactly two snaps against the Ravens (playing 67 of 69) and one against the Seahawks (53 of 54), but has otherwise played every defensive snap.

Over that time, he's the only player in the league with 6.0 sacks and more than 40 tackles, and he's the only player in the league with 100 tackles and at least 7.0 sacks this year.

— Quarterback Sam Darnold hadn't committed a turnover prior to last week's loss to the Buccaneers, but he also tied his career high by throwing for 341 yards in Tampa Bay. And since reclaiming the starting job he had last year in Week 12, he's been among the league's most efficient quarterbacks.

Only two quarterbacks in the league have a better passer rating since Week 12 than Darnold's 105.4 (Jared Goff at 110.7 and Brock Purdy at 106.4).

Offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo said he'd seen impressive progress from Darnold this year. During the spring, he was the starter throughout the entire offseason program and then competed for the job with Baker Mayfield until the preseason injury which landed him on IR.

"In the spring, everything was new for everybody, right?" McAdoo said. "And I think he got a bunch of reps in the spring, got a bunch of reps in camp, then had unfortunately had the injury. He had a chance to heal up and then sit back, and kind of see how the offense looked to see how the offense ran a little bit. And I just think you're seeing Sam go out there, and to me, he's playing with a lot of confidence. He had a chance to see Baker run it, and had a chance to see PJ (Walker) run it. Now he gets to go out and put his spin on things.

"You know, it looks a little different depending on who's in there, right? Each guy has their own skill set. And I think Sam's playing with a lot of confidence right now. He trusts his teammates. They trust him, and he's having some success."

— McAdoo has had a way with one-liners all year, dating back to the "as long as we don't resort to cannibalism" and "crystal ball in my other pants" back in training camp. He continued to deliver on Thursday, when asked to reflect on this season.

"I'm built for a storm; calm doesn't suit me," McAdoo replied.

In the context of a coaching change, three different quarterbacks, and trading running back Christian McCaffrey after Week 6, he has seen a lot this year.

"You know, we had some ups and downs this year," he said. "But I'm proud of the guys for the way they fought. You know, the way we started the year, it was a struggle. On offense, we kept plowing away, kept working, and kept believing, and they're playing for each other. They're working hard. We're not perfect. We're far from it; we have a lot of things we need to work through and work to fix this week. But the guys stick with it. And, you know, we made some strides."

— Interim coach Steve Wilks mentioned the possibility of elevating practice squad receiver Preston Williams this week, and he'd certainly a big target.

The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Williams caught 32 passes as a rookie with the Dolphins but has struggled with injuries over the course of his career. But he has the size, which gets him noticed.

"He's like throwing to an aircraft carrier, you know?" McAdoo said. "He's a big man, right? He's got a big catch radius. He's quarterback-friendly that way. So anytime you get a guy like that, he's always open."

View photos of the TopCats cheerleaders from the Panthers vs. Lions game at Bank of America Stadium on December 24.