Panthers’ OTA takeaways: Xavier Legette sits; Ikem Ekwonu in ‘great system’ for tackles

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — From the moment Dave Canales landed in Charlotte on David Tepper’s private plane, the prevailing narrative involving the Carolina Panthers’ new coach is what he can do for quarterback Bryce Young.

Canales’ quarterback whisperer skills have been much discussed. But there’s another young, key member of the Panthers’ offense who could benefit from Canales’ arrival following a tough 2023 season — left tackle Ikem Ekwonu.

The Panthers threw a lot of money at free-agent guards Robert Hunt and Damien Lewis to improve the interior of their offensive line. But getting a bounce-back season from the man known as “Ickey” would be huge for an offense that was the NFL’s worst a season ago.

“It’s a great system for tackles,” Canales said after Wednesday’s OTA practice. “We run the ball. We throw play-action passes, which engages as a run first. Gives them a little chance to get their hands on a guy and be physical. We run boots. Our keeper game where the line is really just selling the line the opposite way. And then in the pass game, the basis of it is to get the ball out quickly. When we do have to hold it, we’ll try to help our tackles as much as possible when we can.”

Former offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo gave Ekwonu a good bit of help in 2022 after the Panthers drafted him sixth overall from N.C. State. That wasn’t the case as often last season, when ex-offensive coordinator Thomas Brown said he could have used more chip blocks and called more quick-hitting pass plays for Ekwonu’s benefit.

But Ekwonu concedes he could have done more himself. Like seeking out the offensive line coaches for extra guidance.

“I feel like last year I didn’t really take advantage of the resources I had available to me. I feel like I kind of just (was) riding the coattails of that rookie season a little bit. I feel like I was at a place where I just wasn’t,” he said. “So I wasn’t afraid this year to reach out and ask for some help, go over film with some of the new guys we have in the building. I think it definitely helped me out.”

Ekwonu played every offensive snap during what he called a “very humbling” sophomore season. His 11 sacks allowed were the third most among offensive tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. Equally troubling: He admitted to losing his confidence and letting things snowball.

The 6-4, 320-pound Ekwonu, who gave up just three sacks over the final 12 games in 2022, said he didn’t want to talk much about his 2023 struggles. But he and the new coaches identified a couple of the culprits they believe were at the root of the protection issues.

“There was a couple things that looking back on it, when you look at the entire body of work that was last year, there were things that came up time and time again that I didn’t fix as the season went on,” Ekwonu said. “So it’s definitely a big priority for me.”

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Establishing the run game is a big priority for Canales, which was well received by Ekwonu.

“I think it’s been great. I think we’re really playing to our strengths, which I’m excited for,” Ekwonu said of Canales’ system. “Definitely excited to run the ball this year. That’s one of my biggest strengths, obviously. So excited to showcase that every chance I get.”

As Canales referenced, an effective rushing attack and play-action game can effectively slow the pass rush. It also can make an offensive less predictable.

“Any time you can run the ball, you kind of have free range when it comes to the call sheet,” Ekwonu said. “So definitely establishing the run early is gonna help us a lot this season.”

While some scouts have questioned whether Ekwonu has the agility to deal with some of the league’s best speed rushers, few have doubted Ekwonu’s run-blocking abilities. He became well known at N.C. State for the maple syrup bottles he was awarded for all of his pancake blocks.

Canales likely won’t go with that gimmick. But he still believes his philosophy and Ekwonu’s skill set go together like pancakes and sausage.

“He is a mauler and we’re gonna run the ball. And I think when guys are able to just be aggressive and play to their nature, it gives them a lot of confidence in everything else that they do,” the first-year coach said. “So I’m excited about where he’s at and what we’re gonna be doing this year.”



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Other OTA takeaways:

It’s not the best development when your first-round pick is dealing with a soft-tissue issue a month after being drafted. But the Panthers are trying to be cautious with wide receiver Xavier Legette after the former South Carolina standout experienced tightness in his hamstring Tuesday following the holiday weekend.

Legette was in uniform Wednesday but didn’t practice, joining rookie running back Jonathon Brooks — who’s recovering from ACL surgery — on the sideline.

“What happens a lot with rookies is they come out here, it’s a different level of work,” Canales said. “It’s not that they haven’t practiced this long. But everyone’s fast. Everyone’s going. And of course with their wheels turning, there’s a strain on the brain. There’s also a strain on the body.”

“He looked tight,” Canales added. “Yesterday he had a moment in practice where he started to slow down. The trainers started talking to him immediately. It was like, all right, well let’s not throw him back out there. Let’s just not try to rebound. Let’s be smart about it at this point.”



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Your weekly ‘Thiccer Kicker’ update

With Eddy Pineiro continuing to skip the voluntary workouts while looking for a new contract, undrafted rookie kicker Harrison Mevis is making the most of his opportunities. The former Missouri kicker — nicknamed ‘the Thiccer Kicker’ for his 6-foot, 241-pound frame — has made all 10 of his field goals during the two practices open to the media, with a long of 58 yards Wednesday.

But Mevis hasn’t been perfect all spring. He’s missed twice, according to Canales.

“It was like one a day early on. It was somewhere in the middle of his kicking sessions. He bounced back and the made the next couple,” said Canales, who’s been impressed with Mevis’ composure.

“I don’t want to discount the fact that his peers matter to him. He’s a rookie. He comes out here and everybody’s watching. The head coach is sitting there watching. And he’s done a great job just being able to handle that kind of pressure,” Canales added. “He looks calm. He looks focused. He’s doing a really good job for us right now.”



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Joint practices with the J-E-T-S

The Panthers’ joint practices with the Jets last summer became one joint practice after heavy rains in Spartanburg, S.C., brought an early end to the sessions with Aaron Rodgers and the traveling “Hard Knocks” crew. The teams will get together again this August in Charlotte ahead of their preseason game at Bank of America Stadium.

Canales and Jets coach Robert Saleh were quality control coaches in Seattle early in their careers, and practiced together last preseason when Canales was Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator. Besides having a good understanding for how they want the practices to run, Canales also wants the Panthers’ offense to get a couple days against the Jets’ 4-3 scheme, a different look than Ejiro Evero’s five-man front.

(Photo of Legette: Jacob Kupferman / Getty Images)

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