Linemen who can flatten, like Ickey Ekwonu, are in demand in the NFL
Offensive linemen have always loved “pancakes” – no doubt blocks that end in bending over flattened defenders.
But Ikem Ekwonu, likely top-10 in this year’s NFL Draft, which begins Thursday, is a rarity: He’s nimble and dynamic enough to add a bonus pancake after another big play.
In an October game against Louisiana Tech, Ekwonu’s team at North Carolina State arranged a standard transfer. His job was to wedge the defender in front of him towards the sideline and create space for running back Ricky Person Jr. At the time of the snap, Ekwonu, a 6-foot-4, 310-pound left tackle , left his position so quickly that he had time to rotate and wall his match with his back turned, waving at Person across the aisle he had opened.
“Then he runs another 20 yards down the field and pancakes another guy,” Wolfpack offensive line coach John Garrison said. The play ended with a 24-yard touchdown.
Highlights like that cemented Ekwonu’s status at the forefront of a wave of offensive line prospects, including the University of Alabama’s Evan Neal and State’s Charles Cross. from Mississippi, who are expected to be selected early in the draft. Their speed and mobility are in high demand in what have always been the toughest positions in football. In this year’s draft, Cross was one of 12 offensive linemen to run the 40-yard sprint in less than five seconds – Ekwonu clocked 4.93 seconds – twice the previous record by six, established in 2013.
“When they think of offensive linemen, people get stuck on numbers and height and weight,” Ekwonu, 21, said in an interview this month. “But the intangibles: are you flexible? Can you bend? Can you sprint around a corner, straighten up, keep your balance? That stuff is really important, and it’s all about mobility.
In 2013, the last time a lineman was drafted first overall, the NFL had just finished a season in which five quarterbacks rushed for at least 300 yards. Last season featured 10 of those quarterbacks. Where years ago a tackle’s mission was often simple – keep a straight pocket passer – that player may now have to chaperone a turn end game on a snap and execute interference for a jamming signal caller the following.
“Back when it was Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning, it was more old-school football,” said Jordan Reid, an ESPN draft analyst. “You had these big, powerful men trying to overpower the guys at the point of attack. Now it’s about winning with angles, having those athletic linemen who can block passers and direct defenders instead of trying to get through them.
It’s also about keeping up with the pace of the athletes facing them. Ten years ago, teams didn’t have to block Aaron Donald, the undersized but speedy pass thrower who paced the Los Angeles Rams’ Super Bowl run last season.
“Now you have these defensive linemen who are monster athletes,” said Geoff Schwartz, an offensive lineman who played six seasons in the NFL. “That’s why it’s so important that those offensive linemen match that athleticism.”
Going into college, Ekwonu didn’t look like a future first-rounder. A youth football coach called him Ickey, after former Cincinnati Bengals running back Ickey Woods, and the name stuck as he became a three-star recruit. He landed at North Carolina State in 2019 at 288 pounds, lacking the dimensions to stand out among linemen. (The best prospects can be 6-6 years old and weigh well over 300 pounds upon entering college.)
But Garrison and the rest of the Wolfpack trainers saw the potential for Ekwonu’s light feet, loose hips and poise, attributes he had developed in wrestling and, on a few occasions, used to ground the game. 4×100 relay team at Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“The first time I saw him he was walking handstand across the room,” Garrison said. “Only his athleticism and quick twitch speed were very impressive.”
Ekwonu’s weight exceeded 300 pounds as a freshman, and he thrived in a system that required him to be more than a “jug ass,” as Garrison describes all-muscle-no maulers. -hustle. Ekwonu’s routes from snap to snap were almost as varied as a wide receiver’s.
On runs down the middle, he pinned down the defensive ends; on wide pitches, he would speed toward the sideline and hit a linebacker. In all, he landed 67 pancakes in his senior season at North Carolina State.
“The teams knew what we were going to race,” Ekwonu said. “It just made me want to beat them even more. Anytime you can throw the ball at someone who knows what’s coming, it feels good.
Prior to the combine, Ekwonu worked with trainers from biomechanics company Sports Academy. He had two main goals: lock in a reliable 40 time — he hadn’t run one in over five years — and prepare for even greater demands on NFL linemen. His coaches compared Ekwonu’s brilliance to that of a skill position player over 100 pounds lighter, a quality that might have been a luxury and is now almost required.
“You need to be more athletic and able to play longer,” Sports Academy coach Taylor Ramsey said. “It’s not three to six seconds anymore, it’s five to eight, being able to make one play on the line and then another on the court.”
Ekwonu’s NFL idol is Trent Williams, a 2021 All-Pro for the 49ers who ran a 4.81 40-yard dash at the combine in 2010. As part of San Francisco’s complex schemes, which can involve fullbacks splitting into wide receiver and wides taking transfers, Williams sometimes strays from his normal left tackle position. When Williams moves into the backfield, ready to rush to a surprising location and knock down anyone he meets there, Ekwonu sees a plan for how his future team could use it.
“I feel like the NFL is really good at playing with the personnel they have,” Ekwonu said. “Really playing to their strengths.” His next team will have a few to choose from.