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Carolina Panthers

For Ikem Ekwonu, the real work is about to begin

Ikem Ekwonu

CHARLOTTE — For Panthers rookie left tackle Ikem Ekwonu, the real work starts next week when he gets to training camp.

That does not mean he has not been working.

The first-round pick said he knows the expectations that come with his first camp with his hometown team, so he's put a premium on walking in ready.

"This offseason has been a good adjustment for me," Ekwonu said. "A lot of older guys in the room have helped me along the way. We've also got a lot of guys who are used to winning, so I'm appreciative of the guidance I've had so far."

The 21-year-old Ekwonu looks around in the offensive room and sees plenty of experience, and the right kind. The Panthers added guard Austin Corbett in free agency (fresh off winning a Super Bowl ring with the Rams) and center Bradley Bozeman (a three-year starter for the Ravens, one of the league's most consistent teams).

Along with mentors known for their work habits, such as right tackle Taylor Moton, Ekwonu has plenty of good examples to follow.

As he spent his first few months as a professional getting caught up and learning, Ekwonu has also absorbed the lessons they have to share. During drills in OTAs, Corbett is one of the ones out front of every group, sprinting from station to station, and Moton's often one of the last ones off the field.

"The biggest thing is the little things to me," Ekwonu said. "Corbett's always the first one in the drills; he's always trying to set the example. So all of us, me wanting to grow my role as a leader on this team; that's something I'm focusing on. Do everything little thing that you can, so the big things happen in the season.

"With Bozeman, his big thing is recovery. He has specialists he works with in season that have been working on his body for years. He's got a routine. He has a routine for his body, and I've been talking to him about what he does to stay in this league as long as he has. Those have been the biggest things.

"I'm trying to be as proactive as I can about it. My age is one of my biggest positives, how fresh my body is, but in the NFL, that can go fast. So staying as fresh as I can while my body is fresh is going to preserve me that much longer."

The idea of a top talent at the position with that kind of mindset is welcome news for the Panthers, who have started 16 different left tackles (none of them for more than 19 games) since Hall of Honor left tackle Jordan Gross retired after the 2013 season.

Ekwonu was brought here to change that, so having him ready is a key for a team intent on improving its protection. They have a capable young option in Brady Christensen on hand as well, so Ekwonu knows nothing is being given.

"Most rookie guys start on the offensive line play at like a B-minus/B level. We need him to play like an A-minus level/A level," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said. "He not only has to fight to earn the job, but also play really well. I think for him, it's making sure he's in shape. Making sure his body weight's where it needs to be. Making sure that he's able to handle the rigors of camp. They've got to get the pads on. He's got to adjust to all the different pass rushes you're going to see from the great players in this league. I think obviously, the joint practices will be wonderful for him. Playing in preseason will be important for him.

"I just think for him; it's about handling the volume of day after day, working to excel. So hopefully, he trains at a high level. Then shows up there and just attacks the grind at camp."

Ikem Ekwonu

For Ekwonu, the preparation has been mental as well as physical, and things as simple as downloading a mindfulness app have been helpful as he gets ready for his first camp.

"Just got to make sure you're in the right mental space to handle adversity when it comes up," he said. "Any time you have adversity, how do you talk to yourself when adversity happens? If you're in a negative headspace, maybe you're not as mentally strong. Any time you have adversity or big changes in your life, you focus on the negative.

"But mindfulness is good about taking you out of the situation and thinking on a greater scale. So when you think of things in the bigger picture, if you have one bad day, that doesn't mean you're going to have a bad weekend or a bad week. Handling things one day at a time and staying as positive as you can is something that mindfulness helps with."

Thinking positively and creating a strong foundation was what the Panthers had in mind when they drafted Ekwonu sixth overall — acknowledging at the time he was the top-ranked player on their draft board.

And next week, when he gets to Spartanburg, the real work will begin.

Check out photos of Ekwonu on set in the 'Blue Phone Booth' at Bank of America Stadium on Friday of draft week.

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