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Panthers OT Ikem Ekwonu out to put 'humbling' second season behind him: 'It was a tough year'

The Carolina Panthers touched nearly every aspect of the offense around Bryce Young this offseason besides the tackle position. With Taylor Moton entrenched on the right side, the Panthers are counting on former first-round pick Ikem Ekwonu to improve on early-career struggles as a pass protector.

Ekwonu admitted during offseason OTAs that those second-year issues forced him to re-evaluate how he approaches his development.

"I feel like last year, I didn't take advantage of the resources that I had available to me. I feel like I kind of just, I guess, ride the coattails of that rookie season a little bit," Ekwonu said Wednesday, via the team's official website. "I (thought) I was at a place where I just wasn't. So, I wasn't afraid this year to reach out, ask for some help, go over with the guys.

"I don't want to speak on last year too much if I'm being honest, but obviously very humbling experience."

Ekwonu showed signs of being a good run blocker in 2023 but was woeful in pass protection, often getting blown by off the snap. He allowed 11 sacks (second-most among all tackles with at least 600 snaps), nine QB hits and 24 hurries last season, per Pro Football Focus.

The new coaching staff, led by Dave Canales, offensive line coach Joe Gilbert and run game coordinator Harold Goodwin, has spoken positively about Ekwonu's talent and believes that in the right system, he can improve. The fact that the club spent big to upgrade the interior without bringing in veteran competition underscores its belief in the former first-round pick.

The third-year tackle has immersed himself in meetings to correct his errors.

"It included some film study from last year," Ekwonu said. "Just shoring up some inconsistencies on that tape ... just looking at things I did good, things I did wrong, and just making sure I'm working out the kinks.

"When you're looking at the entire body of work that was last year, there was things that came up time and time again that I didn't fix as the season went on, so it's definitely a big priority for me."

The Panthers selected the North Carolina State product No. 6 overall in 2022, knowing he was raw as a pass protector but believing he could grow into a rock. Through two years, there have been few signs of progress.

The new system, predicated on the rushing attack and adding in play action and bootlegs, should give Ekwonu a better chance at success in 2024, but it's on the 23-year-old to make strides.

"Honestly, it was a tough year last year, struggling in a lot of aspects and sometimes it's hard not to get down on yourself, but having some of these guys in your corner to always lift you up, to show you that's not necessarily who you are -- you might make a mistake," Ekwonu said. "You might play bad, but it doesn't mean you're a bad player. So, I got to have some of those guys and kind of just keep that going in my head, that helps a lot."

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