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Panthers throwing a lot at rookie offensive linemen

Ikem Ekwonu

CHARLOTTE — This weekend is a bit unusual for newly drafted Panthers tackle Ikem Ekwonu and guard Cade Mays.

For one thing, the Panthers only brought four offensive linemen to rookie minicamp, so assistant offensive line coach Robert Kugler was working at right guard during a few drills Friday morning.

But the draft picks have also been working with coaches as they can for the two weeks since they joined the team, to get them ready for next week when they'll join their veteran teammates and the job becomes a little more intense.

"Oh, we expect them to be ready," offensive line coach James Campen said, making it clear that there will be no training wheels for the rookies, even though they're limited in what they can do Friday and Saturday.

James Campen

Campen has had some individual Zoom meetings with both Ekwonu and Mays the last two weeks, giving them the basics of what the Panthers call certain plays, because the language is different from what they spoke in college. But he also tried to give them a broad base of knowledge about the theory of this offense (given his long background with new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo), so they're closer to being ready to roll with the entire roster next week.

"I've had help from the staff here, they've helped me a lot," Ekwonu said of getting caught up. "Zoom calls and that kind of stuff, making sure I can grow and learn the playbook as much as I can. They've installed it kind of slow, step by step, but I feel like I'm picking it up pretty well."

Ekwonu admitted that what he's learning now is "a little more involved" than his responsibilities in college — and that's not simply because they're planning on him being the starting left tackle. While Ekwonu could play guard, that's not what you use the sixth overall pick in the draft on, and it's not what they're planning.

So since they anticipate him being here for a long time at an important position, they want to teach him the right way, which means learning concepts instead of particulars sometimes.

"You want to take a little bit of the whole offense," Campen said. "You want to get them caught up as best as you can. But you can't just shove it all at them. But enough that they'll be challenged and understand this is their job now, and there's a lot of self-study time.

"But two and half days to get a good foundation, terminology, . . . that's what we do with rookies. The ones that will be staying thereafter, they'll be integrated in with the other guys, and they'll be expected to pick it up at an accelerated pace."

For Mays, having a lot thrown at him is normal. In four years of SEC competition at Georgia and Tennessee, he played all five positions on the line, so learning the entire offense is something he has some experience with.

"I feel like I can help this team wherever they put me, in any of the five spots," he said. "I think it's essential, in my opinion. Being a guy who can play all five is essential to me. I like to know what everyone's doing, from the right tackle to the left tackle. It's just really important, if somebody goes down.

"In college, if the left tackle would go down, and I was at right guard, I would go to left tackle; that's just how it had to be."

This weekend, there aren't many choices, which also means there are a lot of reps. Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said having so few linemen and players, in general, gives the rookies a chance to run more plays than they might if a full roster was here, so it helps with conditioning.

Ekwonu said he never practiced in college with fewer than 12 linemen at a time (down from the normal 20 to 24), and that was when COVID-19 sapped their numbers. So this was as intense a workday as you get before pads go on, but he grinned and added: "Coach is always going to take care of us."

The workload was fine with Mays, who said the pre-draft season when you train for the combine was counterintuitive for an offensive lineman.

"For sure, as an O-lineman, this is what you do. You love football. You love what you do. And the underwear Olympics, that's not your forte," Mays said. "Play ball. That's what we're here to do."

Asked what he liked the least about "the underwear Olympics," Mays laughed and replied: "I'd say just wearing underwear, I guess."

Regardless how they cover themselves, the Panthers are trying to cover as much ground with these guys as they can. The team's emphasis this offseason was upgrading the offensive line, so having Ekwonu and Mays ready to work alongside guys like Taylor Moton and offseason acquisitions Austin Corbett and Bradley Bozeman is critical.

So Campen's been giving them as much as they can handle during those hour-long Zoom sessions, and then they get plenty of reps this weekend.

"You can go from getting in combine shape where you're practicing for your 40 and your bench press to running 12 plays in a row, so you get your legs underneath you a little bit," Rhule said. "But next week, the last week of Phase 2 (of the offseason program) is going to hit them fast. They're going to have to walk into a locker room on Monday and join the rest of the team. This gets them started. And from there, they have to catch up as best they can."

Because next week, the rest of the team will be here, and it will become a little more real.

View photos from the Panthers first day of rookie minicamp at the Atrium Health practice fields.

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