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Friday, October 7, 2022

The National Football League draught is looking for well-rounded linemen who can still flatten opponents

Pancake blocks, which are no-doubt-about-it blocks that conclude with offensive linemen bending over flattened opponents, have long been a favourite of offensive lineman.

In contrast, Ikem Ekwonu, a projected top-10 choice in this year’s National Football League draught, which starts Thursday, is a rare breed: He is nimble and athletic enough to throw in an extra pancake after another spectacular play.

A normal handoff was used by Ekwonu’s North Carolina State squad during a game versus Louisiana Tech back in October. It was his responsibility to push the defender on the other side of the field toward the sideline in order to make room for running back Ricky Person Jr. As soon as the snap was taken, Ekwonu, a 6-foot-4, 310-pound left tackle, swivelled around and walled off his counterpart with his back turned, waving Person into the alley he had created with his hands.

As a result of his performances like that one, Ekwonu has established his place at the forefront of a wave of offensive line prospects, which includes Evan Neal of the University of Alabama and Charles Cross of Mississippi State, who are both projected to be taken early in the draught. Their agility and speed are in great demand in positions that have historically been the most physically demanding in football. Cross was one of 12 offensive linemen to run the 40-yard dash in less than five seconds at this year’s draught scouting combine — Ekwonu ran it in 4.93 seconds — more than double the previous record of six set in 2013. Cross was also one of six offensive linemen to run the 40-yard dash in less than five seconds in 2013.

In 2013, the previous time an offensive lineman was taken first overall, the National Football League had just ended a season in which five quarterbacks rushed for at least 300 yards. Last season, there were a total of ten such quarterbacks. The job of the tackle was formerly straightforward: keep a pocket quarterback upright. These days, same man may be asked to escort a trick-play end around on one snap and run interference for a scrambling signal-caller on the next snap.

It’s also important to keep up with the athletes on the other side of the track. Ten years ago, teams didn’t have to worry about stopping Aaron Donald, the small but lightning-quick pass rusher who helped the Los Angeles Rams win the Super Bowl last season.

Ekwonu did not seem to be a potential first-round pick when he entered college. He was given the nickname Ickey by a youth football coach in honour of former Cincinnati Bengals running back Ickey Woods, and the moniker stayed as he progressed to the level of a three-star recruit. He arrived to North Carolina State in 2019 at 288 pounds, lacking the physical characteristics to distinguish himself among lineman.

However, Garrison and the rest of the Wolfpack coaches recognised promise in Ekwonu’s light feet, loose hips, and balance, which he had earned via wrestling and had utilised to lead the 4×100 relay team at Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina, on a handful of occasions.

While still a freshman, Ekwonu’s weight topped 300 pounds, and he excelled in a system that required him to be more than a “jug butt,” as Garrison refers to maulers who rely only on their strength and little effort. Ekwonu’s routes from snap to snap were almost as varied as those of a wide receiver, which was impressive.

The defensive ends on his up-the-middle runs were rendered immobile, and on wide throws he would rush out toward the sideline and thump a linebacker. In all, he accumulated 67 pancakes during his last season at North Carolina State University.

Prior to the combine, Ekwonu worked with trainers from the biomechanics business Sports Academy in preparation for the event. He had two primary objectives: to establish a solid 40-yard dash time (he hadn’t done so in more than five years) and to prepare for the far greater demands placed on N.F.L. linemen. His trainers compared Ekwonu’s burst to that of a skill position player who was more than 100 pounds lighter, a characteristic that, although formerly considered a luxury, is now nearly a need in the modern game.

Trent Williams, a 2021 All-Pro for the San Francisco 49ers who clocked a 4.81 40-yard sprint at the combine in 2010, is Ekwonu’s favourite NFL player. When San Francisco’s sophisticated designs call for fullbacks to split out to wide receivers and wideouts to take handoffs, Williams may be forced to line up in a position other than his usual left tackle position. The moment Williams switches into the backfield, poised to dash to some unexpected location and knock down anybody he happens to come across, Ekwonu recognises a template for how his future club may use him.

Dan O'Brien
I am a journalist for The National Era with an emphasis in sports.
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