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After ‘pretty humbling’ 2023, Panthers’ Ickey Ekwonu believes this year will be better

As the Carolina Panthers regressed in 2023, posting a 2-15 season that was thoroughly unwatchable, their gifted left tackle regressed right along with them.

Ickey Ekwonu, who is supposed to be this team’s franchise left tackle for the next decade, had all sorts of problems on an offense that mastered the art of the shutout loss and often got booed in its own stadium. He ranked among the worst tackles in the league in sacks allowed (11) and penalties earned (12), according to Pro Football Focus. His main problem was pass blocking, and the Panthers invariably were behind and throwing the ball, so that was a real issue.

“A pretty humbling experience,” Ekwonu said Wednesday, referring to his 2023 season.

But Ekwonu remains a force and one of Carolina’s best players when on his game. His talent made the former N.C. State and Providence Day hometown and homestate star was the first overall offensive player taken in the 2021 draft (it was five consecutive defensive players, then Ekwonu at No. 6). And new Panthers coach Dave Canales believes that his offensive system is very friendly for those who play Ekwonu’s position.

“It’s a great system for tackles,” Canales said. “We run the ball. We throw play-action passes, which engages as a run first and gives (tackles) a little chance to get their hands on a guy and be physical…. And then in our 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…. It’s a really friendly offense for tackles.”

Panthers tackle Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu played all 1149 of the team’s snaps in 2023, but also was among the NFL leaders in sacks allowed.
Panthers tackle Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu played all 1149 of the team’s snaps in 2023, but also was among the NFL leaders in sacks allowed.

Ekwonu’s strength has always been run-blocking. He’s a “mauler,” as Canales said, and was known for his pancake blocks at N.C. State.

Canales has stressed that the Panthers will run the ball first and foremost this season, and many of the offseason acquisitions — particularly two massive and expensive new starters at offensive guard — have infused tens of millions of dollars into this idea. This, of course, is music to Ekwonu’s ears. Dropping back on another 3rd-and-12 isn’t any offensive tackle’s idea of fun.

“I’m definitely excited to run the ball this year,” Ekwonu said. “That’s one of my biggest strengths, obviously, so I’m excited to showcase that every chance I get.”

At 6-4 and 320 pounds, Ekwonu’s size stands out even in an NFL locker room. What also stood out last season, though, was his surprising tentativeness on some plays. Ekwonu would false-start. Or he would respond to a defensive end’s moves rather than initiating the action himself. Many times, he found himself scrambling to avoid getting Bryce Young sacked yet again.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young fumbles the ball while being sacked by Dallas Cowboys safety Donovan Wilson during second half action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, November 19, 2023. The Cowboys defeated the Panthers 33-10.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young fumbles the ball while being sacked by Dallas Cowboys safety Donovan Wilson during second half action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, November 19, 2023. The Cowboys defeated the Panthers 33-10.

Again, Canales thinks this can be solved by giving the ball to Chuba Hubbard and others -- and seeing that work. “We’re going to 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 coach said.

Ekwonu also said he had a tendency not to ask for help in 2023 when things went bad — to turn inward instead of outward. This, he said, is also different.

“I think one of my biggest things is I’ve been meeting with my coaching staff more,” Ekwonu said. “I feel like last year, I didn’t really take advantage of the resources that I had available to me, you know. I felt like I kind of just (was) riding the coattails of that rookie season a little bit…. Now I’m (not afraid) to reach out and ask for some help.”

And while Young’s improvement or lack thereof will generate most of the headlines and clicks for the 2024 season, Ekwonu’s need to succeed is in many ways just as important.

Without him protecting Young’s blindside well, things could go sour in a hurry. With it, though, the Panthers’ world might just finally spin the right way.