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The Ickey Whisperer: How Cam Erving became a mentor to Ikem Ekwonu
The Panthers backup left tackle has become instrumental in the development of Ikem Ekwonu this year, sharing lessons he wished he learned as a rookie.
By Darin Gantt Oct 22, 2022

CHARLOTTE — There are times when Ikem Ekwonu hears a voice in his ear — a calm one, a quiet and reassuring one, but above all, a helpful one.

It's a voice he especially needs during his rookie year, when things seldom go as planned, even for first-round picks.

But this voice, this one doesn't belong to a coach or a family member. This one belongs to the guy whose job he took, a guy who didn't have to offer that kind of help to anyone, especially the guy who replaced him in the starting lineup.

And yet, Panthers backup tackle Cameron Erving has become the Ickey Whisperer, out of a sense of obligation but also compassion, making sure someone else's path was smoother than his own.

"It means a lot, having that guidance, having someone," Ekwonu said this week. "Cam knows the answers to questions I don't even know were questions. We talk about it, and he said he wasn't sure what he didn't know. So just to be able to say everything he wishes he knew, being able to see everything he sees, having another set of eyes on the play is definitely helpful."

And having that voice in his ear, and always available, is definitely a plus.

The Panthers' offensive line room is arranged in terraced rows of tables, three tables per row, and two seats at each table. Two centers sit together at the middle table, but they otherwise line up in the meeting room the way they line up on the field, so Ekwonu and Brady Christensen are at the left table, Austin Corbett and Taylor Moton on the right. The second row follows the same depth chart/seating chart, slightly above and behind.

While many position coaches will sit at the back of the room for a broader perspective, offensive line coach James Campen sits at the front, facing his players, so he can see their eyes. And he wants all eyes on him, as well as the large screen where they project game film.

There's one exception — because Ekwonu is exceptional, and because he has a voice he can trust behind him.

Campen said Ekwonu's the only player allowed to turn his head to look behind him in the meeting room, because Campen knows Erving is right there.

"Most of the time, it's technique stuff," Ekwonu said of the advice Erving offers. "He sits right behind me in the meeting room, so if I see something, he'll whisper in my ear, 'Get your hat across,' or 'first step,' little things I might not know about my own technique. It's a very in-the-moment thing, like if we're watching film, it's 'Hey, if the play is over here, this is what might happen.'"

Ekwonu grins when he tells this story, because it's a little unusual for 300-pound men to whisper to each other. It's not really a sport built on quiet subtlety.

"Yeah, he actually whispers," Ekwonu said. "He'll lean up and whisper something. Campen gives us freedom, and the space. He respects Cam a lot, so anytime Cam's helping me out, that's something he likes."

For Campen, the veteran line coach known for molding groups made up of fourth-rounders and less into greater wholes in Green Bay, having the chance to work with a talent like Ekwonu is clearly meaningful to him. And having a player like Erving makes it easier to help bring Ekwonu's talent to the fore.

"It's the experience," Campen said when asked what Erving adds. "It's things like his weekly preparation. Learning how to study, not just how to study and be diligent, but what are you looking for on tape when you watch individual tape or cut-ups we send them. To spend the time on things that are really, ... all tape's important, but really detailing the heck out of certain aspects of his game. And those things are very important.

"I think sometimes, as coaches, we can focus in on one thing, and a player like Cam can bring the one thing into a broader perspective. I know that helps some players."

It clearly helps Ekwonu. But the question remains, why would Erving be so invested in someone else?

The veteran lineman was signed on the first day of free agency in 2021, not because the Panthers necessarily envisioned him as a day one starter at left tackle, but because of the experience and cost certainty he provided. They knew he could play left tackle, but at that point, there were still some thoughts they might be able to draft a tackle in the first round who could play that spot. And Erving, with 47 career starts at the time, was the kind of guy any team loves to have as a swing tackle. Last year's draft didn't provide that young alternative, so Erving ended up starting nine games, playing well for stretches when he was healthy.

And of course, Erving has pride, so it wasn't necessarily easy for him to realize the Panthers were definitely looking for his replacement in this year's draft. But the 30-year-old also has the gift of self-awareness.

"Honestly, I knew they were going O-line," Erving said when he considered the offseason. "But I told myself a long time ago, I would never let anybody feel the way I felt as a rookie. Anything I could do to ease that burden or help anybody, I would do it.

"I feel like I've helped him, but him putting the work in and doing the things necessary have helped him get to the point his game is steadily increasing, and it's going to take off."

That kind of selflessness is not the kind of thing that teams can take for granted. Teams are put together, but they're made up for individual contractors, who have to look out for their own best interests as well. But Erving has a gravity about him, the kind of steady leadership that allows him to fit into whatever role, and do the thing that needs to be done. It might seem weird that a backup tackle will break down an offensive huddle in a practice or before a game, but Erving does.

Cam Erving

He's also been in the business long enough to know it's a business, but it's primarily the memories of own his rookie year that made Erving want things to go differently for Ekwonu.

When the Browns drafted Erving 19th overall in 2015, he was still very much a project. He had only played offensive line for three years at Florida State after being recruited as a defensive lineman, and there was some conversation at the time about where on the offensive line he'd actually play. He bounced from center to guard and would eventually make his way back outside to tackle after a couple of stops in Kansas City and Dallas.

But mostly during his rookie year, he was a kid from a small town in South Georgia who got sent to northeast Ohio and plopped into a room of talented players whom he didn't know. It didn't help that their offensive line coach (Andy Moeller) was suspended after an alleged assault in September, and the team parted ways with him shortly thereafter, leaving an assistant position coach in charge of the group a month into the regular season. But the Browns had left tackle Joe Thomas, guard Joel Bitonio, and center Alex Mack along with right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, an established group.

It wasn't that the players there were mean to Erving or anything; he was just new and struggling to adjust to a new position in a new place, where things as simple as the right places to live or eat were things he felt like he had to learn on his own.

"I was in a very intimidating room when I was a rookie," Erving said. "That's not to say I didn't have good vets on my team; it was just different personalities. Joe would answer any question I asked him, but I didn't always have the confidence to ask him. Or know what to ask. I shied away from asking questions, and that hindered my development. So I told Ickey to never do that.

"It was me just not having confidence in myself, and me being a very cerebral person, I always try to learn from being in the environment as opposed to asking a bunch of questions. Because nine times out of 10, we would talk about things I had questions about. But that one out of 10, if you don't ask the question and get clarity, it hurts you. And I just pride myself on not letting him not ask that question. If it's something I feel like I know, I'll mention it or ask him how he sees it. And we go from there."

Cam Erving

Erving pointed out the tremendous advantage Ekwonu has by being from Charlotte and walking into a professional environment with a family and support system in place. And he was determined to be a part of that support system from day one.

"You learn from soaking up information from others. But it's about having the confidence to ask a question, and sometimes you don't because you fear judgment or whatever it may be," Erving said. "Those guys in my room were awesome. But they were at different points in their careers, had families, and different things. It was definitely different.

"My family was in Georgia; I was in Ohio. But we're professionals, and you adapt. You have to tailor your preparation to you. That's been one of the things I've taken and tried to give to him. That's what it's about, in this league, your peers, the respect of your peers. I just wanted to make sure guys didn't have the experience I did. That's just been my biggest goal is to help him do what he needed to do."

When you're drafted into the NFL, especially if you're drafted in the first round, you don't automatically consider being a mentor. You consider being a star in your own right.

But those years in Cleveland shaped Erving, and helped turn him into the kind of person Ekwonu needs most.

"My time in Cleveland, I'm grateful for it," Erving said. "If I hadn't gone through the things I went through, I wouldn't have learned all that I learned throughout my journey. Everybody's journey isn't going to be the same.

"You want to be the guy who stays in one place 10 or 15 years. You want to be that type of player. But there were things that happened that were out of my control that I wish I had done better. But I try to take accountability and have a growth mindset."

And for Erving, that means sharing with the still-21-year-old Ekwonu, knowing that the better he helps make him, the farther away he is from playing himself.

He does it because it's the right thing to do, and because he realizes Ekwonu has the ability to be something special. If you put stock in things like PFF ratings, Ekwonu's the highest-rated rookie tackle in a class that featured three top-10 picks. And he's gotten better each week, which is the trajectory they want him to maintain.

"He's the kind of student that you want to have," Erving said. "He's very open to learning. No ego; when you tell him something, he has a question, he's not afraid to ask. As simple as that may sound, a lot of times, it's not that easy. I tell him and have told him on multiple occasions, don't ever be afraid to ask a question. But the kid's a really fast learner. In some ways, he picked up the playbook faster than I did this offseason. At this point, it's just so many things and offenses I've been in, sometimes it's hard to switch the mindset, but him coming in, he's got a fresh mind, college playbook, and he did a tremendous job with it.

"I've learned a lot from him. It's not an age limit on leadership. That's a thing I try to tell him as well. You don't have to be a vet or a captain to say anything. I feel like he's really listening to those things."

And it's showing up on the field.

Campen clearly likes the talent Ekwonu brought to the Panthers, the rare combination of power and grace that you don't often find. But he's also willing to bark on the rookie, to remind him of what he doesn't know, because it's important that he learns. If that means getting down on all fours on the practice field so he can put Ekwonu's feet where they need to be if he's not going to put them there himself, that's something Campen's willing to do.

But you don't go to those lengths if you don't think it's worth it.

Campen said he's been encouraged by the fact Ekwonu doesn't make the same mistake repeatedly, but wants to make sure the baseline begins at a place where it doesn't create any lasting damage. If you make a lot of Ds as a freshman, it's hard to rescue your GPA.

James Campen

"He's very smart, very book-smart. Now it's the application of taking it from paper to being consistent," Campen said of Ekwonu. "In a game, he'll have four similar blocks; each one got better and better. So let's see if we can, instead of starting at one, start at two or three. So we can always be consistent. Let's get Bs from the start instead of starting at C-minuses.

"He's very good. He's young. I know he'd tell you this, too; it's the detail of being consistent with the details. It's something he continues to have to work on and understand. Really for any position but offensive line, that's got to be your major. To always have that at the forefront of your mind, the why, how, and when to utilize things. And that's very, very important to him."

Campen knows because he spent eight years in the league as a player and has coached linemen in the NFL since 2004. Erving knows because he learned the hard way as a rookie and wants to share those lessons.

And while having a coach speak sharply at you is how many NFL players have to learn learn, having that softer voice in a rookie's ear can make a difference in picking up the nuances that help make the talent matter more. Corbett calls it "the difference in Football 101 and Football 501," and Erving is the kind of professor who can teach precocious freshmen at a graduate level.

"With Cam, he can help bridge that gap at times," Campen said.

You see it on the sidelines during games, when Ekwonu comes over, and Erving is next to him. You see it on the practice field between reps. But mostly, it's work done in the times you don't see that makes the most difference.

"I'm feeling a lot more comfortable," Ekwonu said, just over a third of the way through his rookie season, days short of his 22nd birthday. "I feel like I'm making strides with the help of guys like Cam and some of the other veterans. I definitely appreciate them, and I'm proud of the progress I've made so far.

"Every rep you have, you want it to be as close to perfect as it can be. So anytime I do something on the field or put something on film, I never want it to be like a C or a C-plus. Especially not effort. So every time I get on the field, I want to make sure I execute to my highest ability. That's a good point, starting at a B or a B plus. Then you can just narrow up the little things and get to an A.

"Having a guy like Cam who can share his perspective is great, and being able to do that on the field just doubles down on those lessons. They go hand in hand, on the field and the meeting room."

And while the world of football is loud, and the lessons on the field are often delivered at a yell, it's the quiet voice that firms up those lessons.

Sometimes, it's the whisper that speaks the loudest.

Cam Erving
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