Linemen who can flatten, like Ickey Ekwonu, are in high demand by the NFL

Offensive linemen have always loved “pancakes” – blocks no doubt ending with them flexing on flattened defenders.

But Ikem Ekwonu, a likely top-10 pick in this year’s NFL draft starting Thursday, is a rarity – he’s agile and dynamic enough to add a bonus pancake after another big play.

In an October game against Louisiana Tech, Ekwonu’s North Carolina state team performed a standard handover. His job was to frame the defender in front of him towards the sideline and make room for running back Ricky Person Jr. At the snap, Ekwonu, a 6ft 4, 310lb left tackle, pulled out of his position. so quickly that he had time to turn around and block his encounter with his back turned, greeting the person through the alley he had opened.

“Then he runs another 20 yards down and crushes another guy,” said John Garrison, the Wolfpack offensive line manager. The game ended with a 24-yard touchdown.

Highlights like that cemented Ekwonu’s status at the forefront of a wave of offensive line prospects, including Evan Neal of the University of Alabama and Charles Cross of the State of Mississippi, which should be selected early in the draft. . Their speed and mobility are in high demand in what have traditionally been the most stormy positions in football. At this year’s draft scouting combo, Cross was one of 12 offensive linemen to deliver the 40-yard sprint in under five seconds – Ekwonu scored 4.93 seconds – double the previous record of six, established in 2013.

“When they think of offensive linemen, people get stuck on numbers, height and weight,” Ekwonu, 21, said in an interview this month. “But immaterial things: are you flexible? Can you bend over? Can you run around the corner, team up, keep your balance? That stuff is really important and it’s all about mobility. “

In 2013, the last time a lineman was first enlisted, the NFL had just finished a season in which five quarterbacks ran for at least 300 yards. Last season saw 10 of these quarterbacks. Where years ago the assignment of a tackle was often simple – keeping a pocket passerby upright – that player may now have to chaperone one end of trick-play on one snap and perform interference for one caller scrambling the next. .

“When it was Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning, it was more old-school football,” said Jordan Reid, an ESPN analyst. “You had these big, powerful men trying to overwhelm the boys at the point of attack. Now it’s about winning with the corners, having these athletic linemen who can isolate the passing runners and run the defenders instead of just trying to cross them. “

It’s also about keeping up with the athletes in front of them. Teams a decade ago didn’t have to block Aaron Donald, the undersized but lightning-fast runner who beat the Los Angeles Rams’ Super Bowl run last season.

“Now you have these defensive linemen who are weird athletes,” said Geoff Schwartz, an offensive lineman who played six NFL seasons. “That’s why it’s so important that these offensive linemen match that athleticism.”

Entering college, Ekwonu didn’t look like a future first-rounder. A youth soccer coach named him Ickey, named after the former Cincinnati Bengals who ran back Ickey Woods, and the name stuck when he became a three-star recruit. It landed in the state of North Carolina in 2019 at 288 pounds, lacking the size to stand out among linemen. (The best prospects may be 6-6 years old and weigh well over 300 pounds at the college entrance.)

But Garrison and the rest of the Wolfpack coaches saw potential in Ekwonu’s light feet, wide hips and balance, the attributes he had developed and wrestling, on a couple of occasions, Used to anchor the 4×100 relay at Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina

“The first time I saw him, he was walking vertically across the room,” Garrison said. “Only her athleticism and her rapid twitch speed were truly impressive.”

Ekwonu’s weight surpassed 300 pounds as a freshman, and he thrived on a system that required him to be more than a “butt,” as Garrison describes muscle-less slaughterers. Ekwonu’s snap-to-snap routes had nearly the same variety as those of a wide receiver.

In intermediate races, he would have stopped the defensive ends; on wide fields, he darted to the sideline and hit a linebacker. In all, he landed 67 pancakes in his last season at North Carolina State.

“The teams knew what we were going to run,” Ekwonu said. “This made me want to beat them even more. Whenever you can throw the ball at someone who knows what’s coming, it’s just cool. “

Prior to the combine, Ekwonu worked with instructors from the Sports Academy biomechanics company. He had two main goals: to get 40 reliable times – he hadn’t run any in more than five years – and to prepare for the even bigger demands on the NFL linemen. His coaches have compared Ekwonu’s blast to that of a 100-pound lighter skill position player, a quality that could once have been a luxury and is now almost necessary.

“You have to be more athletic and able to carry on a game for a longer duration,” said Taylor Ramsey, a sports academy coach. “It’s no longer three to six seconds, it’s five to eight, being able to make one play on the line and then another downstream.”

Ekwonu’s NFL idol is Trent Williams, a 2021 All-Pro for the 49ers who ran a 40-yard 4.81 on the combine in 2010. As part of San Francisco’s intricate patterns, which may involve full-backs splitting wide receivers and wideouts taking handoffs, Williams sometimes lines up away from his normal left contrast position. When Williams moves into the backfield, ready to run to a surprising spot and take down anyone he meets there, Ekwonu sees a blueprint for how his future team might use it.

“I feel like the NFL is really good at playing with the staff they have,” Ekwonu said. “Really play on their strengths.” His next team will have few to choose from.