CHARLOTTE — The Panthers have high expectations of first-round pick Ikem Ekwonu, but he at least knows what to expect when he gets to training camp.
All the team wants from him is to become an anchor on an offensive line that's struggled in recent years. That's also going to come with a few requests, as he knows what comes with being well-known for his musical ability.
But mainly, they want him to be great at his day job, and that's where his efforts are now.
"Best advice? Just work. Work," Ekwonu said recently when asked about his approach to his first season. "Don't be scared of being a rookie. There's a lot of rookie stuff you've got to go through. Just really just the rites of passage, things that can be fun more than anything. Just being a rookie and work hard, that's pretty much it."
He hasn't been doing a lot of singing to date, but he knows that will come when he gets to training camp, where rookies have to perform for their teammates as part of the team-building ritual. With his background in musical theatre and chorus from elementary school to high school here at Providence Day, his musical talents were a popular storyline around the draft. So the word is out on the street, and he's not going to be surprised when that time comes.
"Nothing yet," Ekwonu said with a laugh when asked if he's had to perform. "I anticipate I'm going to have to sing a song at some point. I'm already getting ready for that."
Of course, the big thing is getting ready to play.
After rookie minicamp ended, Ekwonu began to mix in with the veteran additions and incumbent linemen, and it's customary for rookies to work their way in slowly. Eventually, everyone expects him to be a long-term starter. For now, he's learning a playbook and working his way through drills with some of his fellow young players, watching some more experienced guys work with the first team as he assimilates. That's neither unique nor unexpected.
Ekwonu admitted the Panthers' playbook is more complicated than what he had to learn at N.C. State, specifically in terms of his responsibility for knowing formations. New offensive line coach James Campen wants his linemen to understand the entire offensive philosophy rather than zeroing in on a single player's responsibility, and that's something he's learning as he goes.
"Our job is to take whatever we're doing here and simplify as much as we can for them," Campen said. "But the best way we can do that, in our opinion here, is to make sure you know what the concept is. The why of the play and not just learning plays, so you can say, 'I know this one goes to the right, but why does it, why does it set the formation that way?'
"At first, you try to touch on the majority of those things, get them thinking, and re-confirm what they've been learning the last couple of weeks."
Ekwonu said the process was "a little bit different" than what he was used to in Raleigh, but added: "I feel like I've adjusted well to it."
Because of his potential, the Panthers were obviously excited to add him. That's not just because it had been a long time since they had drafted a tackle in the first round (though it had been since 2008). Mostly, they think with his ability and aggressiveness, he can become a difference-maker.
Offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo said that when he watched film of Ekwonu before the draft, there were things that stood out.
"I was back home, and I was watching it with my son," McAdoo recalled. "They pitched the ball to the edge, and you just saw him come out of his stance, and the foot speed was really impressive to see, something you don't see a lot of. And then you get a chance to meet him, and you feel really good about the person.
"Obviously, he has a long way to go, and he has a lot to learn, and he's still a young guy. You know, they're still trying to figure out if it's pumped or stuffed at this point, but you certainly like his skill-set, and you certainly like the person, and you look forward to playing with him."
Ekwonu at least has the advantage of familiarity. After a long day of work, he's able to go back to his own home, while the rest of the rookies are busy relocating and trying to earn jobs at the same time.
"It was definitely a blessing, more than anything," Ekwonu said. "A lot of guys are across the country. With me, right after the draft, I go right back home and sleep in my own bed. It was nice."
But when he walks on the practice field and meetings during OTAs, that familiarity with his hometown doesn't matter, only that he continues to play at the level he's shown so far.
"I guess more like my effort and work ethic, stuff that I've put on film already," Ekwonu replied when asked what he's trying to do at this point in the offseason. "And just show I'm the same kind of player that I was in college, and can grow from the kind of player I already was. Getting out there and doing it 100 percent, every drill, every rep, showing the guys the effort's always going to be there. . . .
"I feel like it's more being consistent. They drafted me sixth overall; they drafted me for a reason, they don't want me to do any more or any less. They want me to be the same player they saw and evaluated. So I'm going to be that guy each and every day."
That, and being ready to sing when the time comes. Because that time is coming soon.
View photos from all the action at the Panthers OTAs workout on Thursday, May 26, 2022.