FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Ikem Ekwonu's moment has arrived.
The Panthers' rookie offensive lineman appears to have earned the starting left tackle spot, and head coach Matt Rhule said Tuesday the sixth overall pick from this year's NFL draft will continue to take reps with the first-team offense "moving forward."
Ekwonu said he feels like he's done the work to take his place along Carolina's starting offensive line, and he doesn't plan on letting it go.
"(It) feels like I've finally been able to earn my way into that spot," Ekwonu said after Tuesday's joint practice with the Patriots. "I look forward to continuing in that role and doing the best I can to keep that spot."
Ekwonu took reps with the first-team offense throughout Tuesday's work, after he was eased into the starting group throughout training camp in Spartanburg. Ekwonu worked with the second line at left tackle early in camp, while Brady Christensen was starting at left tackle after finishing there last year.
Rhule said part of the decision-making process with reps included evaluating how Ekwonu performed in a game. With tape from Saturday's preseason win at Washington, the choice to roll with Ekwonu at left tackle became clearer.
"We wanted him to go in a game and play, and then earn with his play," Rhule said. "He played well in the game, so these are valuable reps for him."
The 6-foot-4, 320-pound tackle lined up with Christensen, Pat Elflein, Austin Corbett, and Taylor Moton in practice, facing the Patriots' veteran pass-rusher Matthew Judon and a good front seven.
Rhule said he saw joint practices against New England's defense as a solid learning opportunity for the young tackle, as Ekwonu continues to get adjusted to the league.
"He had some plays that were good, there were some plays that weren't very good probably," Rhule said. "You're going against Judon. They've got good guys over there, so those are good reps for him."
Ekwonu said he's been growing more comfortable along the Panthers' offensive line thanks to his coaches, offensive line coach James Campen and assistant offensive line coach Robert Kugler, but that he's also been mentored by Moton, Elflein, and Cameron Erving.
"The whole offensive line is really great at helping each other out," Ekwonu said. "We watch every rep together, and we critique each other. Something that we're not afraid to do is criticize our own team. I feel like, at the end of the day, it's just going to make us better."
And with Ekwonu settling in at left tackle, Rhule said Christensen and Michael Jordan are now in competition for the spot at left guard.
"Brady's one of the most improved players on the team," Rhule said. "So MJ and Brady, they'll continue to battle it out."
Ekwonu said he's still working on the nuances of pass protection, but the Panthers appear confident the ceiling for this year's first-round pick is high.
"When the ball is snapped, Ickey can block out the sun," offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo said last week. "He's a big man that plays with some physicality. You can see his intelligence on tape. He's a smart guy, very conscientious."
But Ekwonu said he feels good about where he stands in Carolina's offense, and he doesn't plan to stop learning now that he's getting to rep with the ones.
"I'm very comfortable," Ekwonu said. "I've been coached up since phase two (of camp), so I feel really good right now, just learning more and more of the technique, little details."
View photos from Tuesday's practice with the New England Patriots in Foxborough.