Offensive linemen have all the time liked “pancakes” — no-doubt-about-it blocks that finish with them flexing over flattened defenders.
But Ikem Ekwonu, a possible top-10 decide in this yr’s N.F.L. draft, which begins Thursday, is a rarity: He is agile and dynamic sufficient so as to add a bonus pancake after one other huge play.
In an October sport in opposition to Louisiana Tech, Ekwonu’s North Carolina State staff ran an ordinary handoff. His job was to wedge the defender reverse him towards the sideline and create area for operating again Ricky Person Jr. At the snap, Ekwonu, a 6-foot-4, 310-pound left sort out, shot out of his stance so rapidly that he had time to swivel round and wall off his matchup along with his again turned, waving Person by means of the alley he had opened.
“Then he runs another 20 yards downfield and pancakes another guy,” John Garrison, the Wolfpack offensive line coach, stated. The play ended in a 24-yard landing.
Highlights like that one have cemented Ekwonu’s standing on the vanguard of a wave of offensive line prospects, together with Evan Neal of the University of Alabama and Charles Cross of Mississippi State, anticipated to be chosen early in the draft. Their pace and mobility are in excessive demand at what have historically been soccer’s burliest positions. At this yr’s draft scouting mix, Cross was one in every of 12 offensive linemen to run the 40-yard sprint in lower than 5 seconds — Ekwonu clocked in at 4.93 seconds — twice as many because the earlier document of six, set in 2013.
“When they think of offensive linemen, people get stuck on the numbers, height and weight,” Ekwonu, 21, stated in an interview this month. “But the intangible stuff: Are you flexible? Can you bend? Can you sprint around a corner, get square, keep your balance? That stuff is really important, and it’s all tied to mobility.”
In 2013, the final time a lineman was drafted first total, the N.F.L. had simply completed a season in which 5 quarterbacks ran for at the very least 300 yards. Last season featured 10 such quarterbacks. Where years in the past a sort out’s project was typically easy — hold a pocket passer upright — that participant now could should chaperone a trick-play finish round on one snap and run interference for a scrambling signal-caller the following.
“Back when it was Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning, it was more old-school football,” Jordan Reid, an ESPN draft analyst stated. “You had these big, powerful men trying to overpower guys at the point of attack. Now it’s all about winning with angles, having these athletic linemen that can seal off pass rushers and run defenders as opposed to trying to just plow through them.”
It’s additionally a matter of maintaining with the athletes reverse them. Teams a decade in the past didn’t have to dam Aaron Donald, the undersized however blink-quick move rusher who paced the Los Angeles Rams’ Super Bowl run final season.
“You have these defensive linemen now who are freak athletes,” Geoff Schwartz, an offensive lineman who performed six N.F.L. seasons, stated. “That’s why it’s so important that these offensive linemen are matching that athleticism.”
Entering school, Ekwonu didn’t seem like a future first-rounder. A youth soccer coach known as him Ickey, after the previous Cincinnati Bengals operating again Ickey Woods, and the identify caught as he grew to become a three-star recruit. He landed at North Carolina State in 2019 at 288 kilos, missing the size to face out amongst linemen. (Top prospects will be 6-6 and weigh properly over 300 kilos coming into school.)
But Garrison and the remainder of the Wolfpack coaches noticed potential in Ekwonu’s mild toes, unfastened hips and steadiness, attributes he had developed wrestling and, on a few events, used to anchor the 4×100 relay staff at Providence Day School in Charlotte, N.C.
“The first time I saw him, he was walking in a handstand across the room,” Garrison stated. “Just his athleticism and quick-twitch speed were very impressive.”
Ekwonu’s weight surpassed 300 kilos as a freshman, and he thrived in a system that requested him to be greater than a “jug butt,” as Garrison describes all-muscle-no-hustle maulers. Ekwonu’s routes from snap to snap had almost as a lot selection as these of a large receiver.
On up-the-middle runs, he would convey defensive ends to a standstill; on large pitches, he would pace out towards the sideline and wallop a linebacker. In all, he notched 67 pancakes in his final season at North Carolina State.
“Teams knew what we were going to run,” Ekwonu stated. “That just made me want to beat them even more. Anytime you can run the ball on someone who knows what’s coming, it just feels good.”
Leading as much as the mix, Ekwonu labored with trainers from the biomechanics firm Sports Academy. He had two fundamental targets: to lock in a dependable 40 time — he hadn’t run one in greater than 5 years — and to prep for the even greater calls for for N.F.L. linemen. His trainers likened Ekwonu’s burst to that of a ability place participant greater than 100 kilos lighter, a high quality that may as soon as have been a luxurious and is now nearly requisite.
“You have to be more athletic and able to carry on a play for a longer duration,” Taylor Ramsey, a Sports Academy coach, stated. “It’s not three to six seconds anymore, it’s five to eight, being able to make one play at the line and then another one downfield.”
Ekwonu’s N.F.L. idol is Trent Williams, a 2021 All-Pro for the 49ers who ran a 4.81 40-yard sprint on the mix in 2010. As a part of San Francisco’s intricate schemes, which may contain fullbacks splitting out to large receiver and wideouts taking handoffs, Williams generally strains up away from his regular left sort out place. When Williams shifts into the backfield, able to hurry to some shocking spot and knock over whomever he meets there, Ekwonu sees a blueprint for a way his future staff would possibly use him.
“I feel like the N.F.L. is really good at playing to the personnel they have,” Ekwonu stated. “Really playing to their strengths.” His subsequent staff could have a number of to select from.