The start of training camp is always an exciting time in the NFL calendar with fans getting their first look at new signings and the start of the season itself starting to draw ever closer. For the 2021 Panthers, there were certainly a lot of new faces to be excited about, with a new quarterback in Sam Darnold, eleven draft picks highlighted by Jaycee Horn and a number of free agent signings including Haason Reddick coming off a 12.5 sack season.
With all these new faces, it was therefore a surprise to some that one of the brightest stars of the Panthers’ preseason games was Frankie Luvu, a hybrid edge rusher signed more than a week into free agency. We spoke to Luvu to find out more about his decision to sign with the Panthers, how he was able to make such an impact in the preseason and his mindset as he prepares to face his former team in the Jets.
Growing up in American Samoa, Luvu was a relatively late convert to football but ultimately was recruited by Washington State from where, despite an impressive 2017 season where he totaled 48 tackles, 6.5 sacks and 2 interceptions, he went undrafted in 2018 before ultimately signing with the Jets. Though this might not be the route to an NFL roster that some more highly touted prospects take for granted, for Luvu it was an important marker in his journey.
“First sport I played was soccer,” explained Luvu. “Then, I think my freshman year, that’s when I started to play football. With my height and everything I became too big for soccer and just the percentage of kids coming off the island through soccer wasn’t high. So, my way of getting off the island, and trying to help out my family was choosing the football route and trying to see where it goes. So, obviously, everything ended up as my dream.
Though he failed to make the Jet’s initial 53-man roster as a rookie, Luvu was signed back off their practice squad a week into the season and ultimately went on to play 40% of the Jets’ defensive snaps as a rotational pass rusher, recording three sacks, five TFLs and eleven QB hits. However, with a change of coaching staff in New York, Luvu was somewhat sidelined and saw his defensive snaps drop significantly for the 2019 season as well as most of 2020., though this was compensated by a significant increase in his special teams contribution.
Despite posting 2 sacks, a TFL, three QB hits and a pass defended during his only consistent playing time over the final three games of the 2020 season, yet another coaching change in New York saw Luvu allowed to depart as a restricted free agent this past offseason, ultimately signing a one-year deal in Carolina where his ability to play both as an edge rusher and an off-ball linebacker looks to be an excellent fit with the defense the Panthers are looking to run under Phil Snow.
For Luvu, however, the decision to sign with the Panthers was about a lot more than just football.
“To be honest, if I was being real, after my brother passed early on to the year, in March, I just felt like it was my calling to be with the Panthers,” said Luvu. “It was his favorite color, blue, and everything at the funeral was blue. Everything after the funeral as far as the badges, the banners and the flowers, what he wore that day. I felt like everything was a sign at that point, that’s before I signed, so after the funeral I sat down with my family, prayed about it and really took it to heart that this is my calling and a new journey, a new opportunity for me. So it didn’t matter if I knew the coaches or not, you know, I just knew that when I get there, I’m gonna work my ass off and see the results because I feel like this was my calling, to be here, to be a Carolina Panther.”
Given the significance of this opportunity to Luvu, it should come as little surprise that Matt Rhule has used him as an example of how to approach the game.
“I point out to the guys on Special Teams and defense, just do what Frankie Luvu does, just run down and punch at the ball and get it out and all of a sudden you’ll find your roster spot growing” said Rhule.
That’s certainly an approach that Luvu is trying to take, and while his role on defense is likely going to be bigger than it was for a large portion of his time with the Jets, he plans to take every time he steps on the field as an opportunity to be made the most of.
“(Coach Rhule) talks about just using your opportunities, and when you’re on the field just make the most of it,” explained Luvu. “That’s not only for me but for any other players, but I take that really to heart, where I get my opportunities, and might be one or two reps, but I’m gonna play as though it’s my last snap. I take it as that. So, I take pride in that, and then trying to show respect and effort and also discipline in my job and what I do.”
With the season not yet upon us there is still a lot of work for Luvu to do to cement his mark in Carolina, but after a strong start to his time in black and blue, Luvu is certainly encouraged that his hard work is paying off.
“Everything that’s come up, I feel like I put in the work and just taking one day at a time, and everything has fallen in the right place,” explained Luvu. “I feel like it’s kind of expected because I put in the work, once you put in the work and knowing I’m confident in what I did. So, yeah, I expected to be where I’m at right now.”
There is certainly an expectation inside the building that Luvu can make an impact in Carolina as, while Luvu’s decision to sign with the Panthers wasn’t hugely influenced by the coaching staff, for the coaches he is an ideal fit in a defense that prioritizes versatility. Though this lack of a clear position was sometimes a hindrance for him during his time in New York, with the Panthers there is not only a clear role for a player like him on defense, but also other players in the same mold who can offer both guidance and support.
“Well, we’ve got guys like Hasson (Reddick), (Brian) Burns, Marquis (Haynes) and Christian (Miller), we’re all kind of that hybrid,” explained Luvu. “But at the end of the day, I just find an edge on what I need to work on and just take it one day at a time I practice. The guys really helped me man, especially Burns and Haason, they took me under their wing and showed me the ropes, and I’m still learning and trying to get as much as I can.”
While Christian Miller ultimately didn’t make the final roster, the Panthers’ quarter of versatile edge defenders look to be an important piece in how the Panthers are looking to develop defensively this season, and with the Panthers looking to improve their performance on key third downs this season it is likely that they will find ways to get as many of them on the field as possible in obvious passing situations, maximizing the potential rush combinations that quarterbacks have to consider.
Of course, with the Jets travelling to Charlotte to start the 2021 season, Luvu will join Sam Darnold and Pat Elflein in having a chance at getting one over their former team to start the year. For Luvu, he is determined both to make the most of the opportunity while focusing on making sure he doesn’t get lost in the moment and continues the approach that has proven so effective to this point.
“It’s a special one for me, and I’ll treat it like any other game,” explained Luvu. “At the end of the day, I’m gonna focus on what we need to do in our team and not what they do and just do my job.”
And while that job will likely be to try and make life as hard for Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson, Luvu is willing to do whatever is needed.
“I’ll do anything,” said Luvu. “I’m a type of guy that if you need me to do special teams, on defense, or, you know, be a running back I’ll do it. I’m willing to do anything for the team to get a win. At the end of the day, that’s what we all want. So, if it’s special teams or if it’s defense, I’m willing to do whatever.”
While Panthers fans will certainly hope that Luvu doesn’t end up playing running back on Sunday (or at all for that matter), Luvu seems to be the embodiment of the team-first, hyper versatile piece that Matt Rhule seems to prize and, should he be able to play at the level he did in the preseason throughout the regular season, then Luvu could certainly spend a lot more time in blue (and black) moving forwards.
(Top photo via Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers)