In August 2014, in the Spartanburg heat at Wofford College, then-rookie Kony Ealy couldn’t get past a third-string offensive tackle who had never played football in America.
Time and again Canadian tackle David Foucault would stone Ealy at the line of scrimmage as teammates shouted at the second-round draft pick from Missouri to work through it.
Now Ealy’s a starting defensive end for the Panthers and has consecutive weeks with a strip sack – first against Andrew Luck and most recently against reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers.
Halfway through his sophomore campaign, Ealy is playing the best he has as a professional and becoming the type of pass rusher the Panthers hoped for when they graded him as a first-rounder in 2014.
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“It’s because I’m allowing myself to grow,” Ealy said. “I’m doing the extra things that I need to do – pushing myself that extra inch and digging deep.”
I’m doing the extra things that I need to do – pushing myself that extra inch and digging deep.
Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy
After starting slowly this season, Ealy has found a consistent pass rush since the Week 5 bye. He has been effective in the pass and run games while playing both at defensive end and defensive tackle.
He has come a long way from being inactive in last year’s season opener after a lackluster training camp where overconfidence did him in.
Ealy said he didn’t come into his first NFL camp in the best shape, and that’s probably why he struggled that late afternoon against Foucault. The media obligations around the draft kept him preoccupied, and while he was still working out regularly, he wasn’t as dedicated as he should have been.
Ealy had 9 1/2 sacks in his final season with the Tigers, and the Panthers had a first-round grade on him. When Ealy fell to the second day of the draft, the Panthers scooped him up proudly.
But his preseason performance as a rookie didn’t suggest a first-round pass rusher. Carolina coaches couldn’t justify making him active for the Week 1 game against the Buccaneers, and he was active the following week only because Greg Hardy was scratched from the lineup on gameday.
“I think he came in a little overconfident about his abilities,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “It was a little bit of an awakening for some young guys, especially a guy like him who had success in college and then all of a sudden (was hit with) the realization of how hard it is.”
Ealy limped through most of his rookie season with nine tackles and one sack in the first 13 games of the year. He finished the year with a sack in each of the final three games as he improved his conditioning and adjusted to the speed of the NFL.
It was a little bit of an awakening for some young guys, especially a guy like him who had success in college and then all of a sudden (was hit with) the realization of how hard it is.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera, on DE Kony Ealy
But sometimes he didn’t give his all at practice. When the Panthers put him on the scout team on Wednesdays and Thursdays during the week, he’d sometimes give 75 percent, Rivera estimated, the coaching staff would have to push him to give more.
“Well now there is no goading,” Rivera said. “He does those things. He holds himself accountable. You see him get frustrated with himself when he makes mistakes. And I think those are good indications that he’s beginning to understand and realize and recognize the importance of not just what you do on the field but your preparation.”
Against both the Colts and Packers, Ealy used a strong start off the snap to get the tackle off balance, used his hands to move him aside and then swiped down at the quarterback to get the strip sack.
Perhaps one of Ealy’s best plays of the season that won’t show up on the statistic sheet happened in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s victory over Green Bay. On third-and-14 near midfield, Ealy got a great jump off the ball, knocked right tackle Brian Bulaga’s hands away and pushed him to the ground with his left arm.
Rodgers felt the pressure coming and threw the ball away deep and out of bounds, setting up the Packers for a fourth-and-long.
Being a young player in this league is not easy for anyone. It’s a tough league. It’s a grown man’s league.
Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott
“My coaches, they’ve always believed in me but they were waiting on me. And now it’s coming along great because the more and more I’m doing well, the more and more confidence I’m building,” Ealy said. “I know the things I have done to this point. I’ve done the right things and I’ve gone in the right direction. So I’m able to do better and be more effective.”
This week, Ealy faces a Tennessee offensive line that has given up 28 sacks this year but none last Sunday. Ealy is looking for his third consecutive game with a sack.
“Being a young player in this league is not easy for anyone. It’s a tough league. It’s a grown man’s league,” Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “You’re challenged every week and it’s a new challenge. Sometimes you have to learn by going through those challenges, and I think Kony’s done a great job of remaining coachable going through those challenges. And if he keeps doing that he’ll only get better.”