CHARLOTTE — The Panthers needed somebody, anybody, on defense to make a play.
So when it finally got made, it wasn't really a surprise to any of his teammates that it was linebacker Frankie Luvu to start the avalanche.
The man they call "Uce" in the locker room — short for the Samoan word "Uso," meaning brother — is known for bringing energy in short bursts. This season, he's being asked to bring even more of it, more often, and he's delivering.
Asked about Luvu stripping the ball away from Saints running back Alvin Kamara last week — a violent rip behind the line of scrimmage that caused the ball to bounce clear of a knot of people and into the hands of Marquis Haynes Sr. who returned it 44 yards for a touchdown — defensive tackle Derrick Brown just grinned.
"That's Uce. That's Uce Behavior at this point, man," Brown said. "No other name to describe it. All that high-energy stuff; high-energy isn't enough to describe it. It's Uce Behavior."
Energy has always been one of the first words used to describe the veteran linebacker's game, but the definition has changed already this season.
He's always been a hair-on-fire special teams player, and an impact sub on defense. A team will usually play about 1,000 snaps of defense over the course of a season (fewer if they're good). Luvu's never played more than 442 snaps of defense (45 percent of the Jets' total in 2018). Last year with the Panthers, when he was new here and finding a role, he played 249 snaps on defense (24 percent), but 303 snaps on special teams (71 percent, and since linebackers don't play on field goals and extra points, that basically means all the rest).
Already this year, he's played 207 defensive snaps (93 percent), so at his current pace, he'll surpass his totals for the previous two seasons (he played 258 snaps for the Jets in 2020) sometime during Sunday's game against the Cardinals. He's dialed back his special teams duties a bit (31 snaps so far this season, or 44 percent), but still loves being a part of that world.
Ordinarily, you'd worry about a flame that bright burning out quickly, but now that he's a regular, teammates are seeing no difference in the way he plays.
"I don't think it matters," Brown said when asked if he sees a difference between Luvu the super-sub and Luvu the starter. "Uce is one of those guys; for the team, he does what he needs to. It doesn't matter if he's out there 20,000 plays or one; he's going to stand out.
"It's not trying to do too much; it's trying to do his job."
He's also making plays at a high level. He's already tied for third in the league with four tackles for loss, forced the game-changing turnover (the team's first of the season) against the Saints, and dropped what could have been a pick-six against the Giants. After showing he could make plays in short doses as a pass-rusher last year, they asked more from him this year, challenging him to adapt his game to get him on the field more often.
|Year||Team||GP/GS||Defensive Snaps||Special Teams Snaps|
|2018||NYJ||14/1||442 (44.8%)||181 (41.3%)|
|2019||NYJ||13/0||69 (7.9%)||215 (58.3%)|
|2020||NYJ||13/3||258 (28.1%)||238 (65.2%)|
|2021||CAR||16/4||249 (24.4%)||303 (70.8%)|
|2022||CAR||3/3||207 (93.2%)||31 (34.1%)|
"Everybody said Frankie was better at the line of scrimmage, rushing and all that, and that he wasn't real good in coverage," Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Snow said. "But he's really worked on that in the last year. We sat him down, and we wanted a complete linebacker, and I think he's become a much better linebacker in all aspects of his game.
"Hopefully, he can stay healthy. He's going to play a lot more snaps than he's played in the past. So that's his big challenge."
Luvu plays at the kind of speed that lends itself to dings, and he turns up on the injury report at times (both shoulders already this year). But he's stayed on the field and stayed making plays. They've also done some things to keep him well. He'll show up at practice some days in a green jersey (which signifies a slightly reduced workload), and the team's performance staff has made it a point to offer extra treatment, massages, and other methods to keep him where he needs to be.
He credited the training he's always done as a special teams player (a duty which requires you to be able to sprint 40 or 50 yards downfield at a moment's notice and be able to make open-field tackles) with keeping him conditioned for anything now.
"I kind of prepare myself for that," Luvu said when asked about doing more this year. "I tell everyone I was a special teams guy, and that's how I got on the field. So I know the more workload I have, the more condition I have to get myself in.
"I don't think it's a burden; I think of it as a challenge. I challenge myself to push myself beyond my limits."
He acknowledges that becoming the "complete linebacker" Snow challenged him to be is still a process (there was a coverage mistake or two in the Giants game, which he'd love to have back), but he likes the progress he's made.
"Don't get it wrong, I still messed up on a couple of plays," Luvu said. "It might look good to everybody, but as I critique myself, there's a lot of things I need to work on. I was disappointed when I didn't get the pick (against the Giants). That was a changing point in the game. Yeah, I was pretty disappointed I didn't get that ball.
"I'm just trying to make the most of my opportunities. This game can be taken away at the snap of a finger, so I try to make the most when the time comes. Now I'm in a position to be on that platform and use it, so trying to do all I can."
The things he's doing are coming at times when his teammates need them, as well.
Last week, when the Panthers were stuck without a turnover, Snow predicted something like what unfolded when he said they needed more of a focus on punching the ball out.
"Once it happens, it gets contagious, right?" Snow said last week before the Saints game. "So hopefully, that will happen here soon."
It did, with Brown making a one-handed interception of a pass tipped by a blitzing Jaycee Horn later in the game, and then Horn sealing the win with a late interception of his own.
That delivery did arrive, as promised — as soon as Luvu jump-started the car.
He's been pumping guys up as soon as he got here — and his Samoan Siva Tau chants have become a touchstone for the defense — but his playmaking is what makes the real difference.
"It's infectious. The motor he plays with, it raises the levels of all the guys on the field on the defensive side of the ball," Horn said. "It just makes you want to do more when you see him putting his life on the line — because that's what it looks like when he's playing, like he's putting his life on the line for defensive guys. It makes me personally want to do the same thing.
"He always played hard. I always knew he was a playmaker too because he played that hard. And when you play that hard, good things come with it. It's exciting to see him affecting the game in a positive way, making big plays, because he's a guy that deserves it."
For all the passion he brings on the field, there's an understated quality to Luvu off the field, partly because of the quiet tone with which he speaks. But after spending four seasons running down kicks, fitting in where he could, and making the most of scant opportunities, Luvu also knows chances like the one he has now aren't the kind you take for granted.
"You've just got to keep bringing energy," Luvu said. "If we were 2-0 and not 0-2 to start the season, it would be the same. Just bring the same energy.
"A lot of guys handle it different, but it's the NFL; everybody here is good, so you just take advantage of the opportunities you get, and just stack on days."
View photos of the Panthers linebacker in action, since he arrived here as a free agent in 2021.