SPARTANBURG, S.C. – There probably aren't many Panthers who are as amped as rookie tackle Ikem Ekwonu to start practicing in pads Monday.
Carolina's four-day acclimation period concluded Saturday, so the Panthers will be back in full pads when they return after an off day Sunday.
Ekwonu said he's excited to compete in padded practices – and he's also ready to make the most of his upcoming opportunity in camp.
"(I) love the competition aspect of it," Ekwonu said. That's something you can't really get when you're just in jerseys."
The 6-foot-4, 320-pound rookie from N.C. State was the Panthers' first-round selection of the 2022 NFL Draft, taken with the sixth overall pick.
But he knows that when it comes to finding a spot along Carolina's rebuilt offensive line, he'll have to work for his place.
"Everyone has to earn that right to be out there week one, myself included," Ekwonu said. "Regardless of draft status or vet status, everyone's got to earn their spot. I'm looking forward to (it) each and every day."
Ekwonu has been working primarily at left tackle, where he has been competing with second-year lineman Brady Christensen for the spot. Christensen has worked with the first team to begin most segments, largely because of familiarity after he finished last year as the starter. But Ekwonu has worked in there as well, with Christensen getting reps at left guard at times next to Ekwonu.
Ekwonu probably could play guard, though that's not really what he's here for, but he said he's kept an open mind throughout offensive line coach James Campen's process.
"I feel comfortable at left tackle, but I've always said I can swing both sides," Ekwonu said. "If coach needs me to play somewhere (else) or bump inside, I'd be willing to do it."
While Ekwonu is thrilled to put pads on and go at full speed come Monday, it's not to say he hasn't taken in every part of the process so far.
The 21-year-old new Panther said he's taking everything in from being around veterans along the offensive line. Ekwonu said he keeps an open ear around his teammates, naming Austin Corbett, Taylor Moton, Christensen, Bradley Bozeman, and Cameron Erving specifically as players who have had his attention.
He's also been taking in the early days of training camp, part of the many offseason programs Ekwonu said has helped him make the jump to the league.
"It's definitely been good," he said. "Obviously, having the rookie minicamp, OTAs, the phase two and phase three programs have helped a lot in my development. I feel like it's definitely been a good couple of days, and I'm looking forward to the rest of camp."
What's coming up is what Ekwonu has been waiting for – the chance to continue to show what he's learned from those with more experience through OTAs and the first days of training camp, working to earn his spot.
And he's ready to add an edge with pads in practice.
"I love that physicality of the game," Ekwonu said. "That's one of my biggest strengths coming in here. So when the pads come on, I'm going to be a different animal."
View the best photos of fans getting autographs from Saturday's practice.