Sometimes in the world people are flat out mean. It’s true in football as well. We had “Mean” Joe Green, Ray Nischke, Deacon Jones (with the head slap), Jack Lambert (who hated everybody) and Chuck Bednarik who ended Frank Gifford’s career with a hit and was known as Concrete Charlie.
Then you have some dirty players like Conrad Dobler, Bill Romanowski, Jack Tatum, Vontaze Burfict, Fred Williamson, and of course Ben Davidson. You might know that 4 out of the 6 were Raiders.
Some players appear mean or dirty but they are really not. Take Ikem Ekwonu for example. He was called the meanest player in the ACC, a guy you wouldn’t like to tangle with on the field. He is an impressive sort at 6’4” 320 lbs who has totaled 18 knockdown and 63 pancake blocks for the North Carolina st Wolfpack. Those pancakes I mentioned usually have Ikem taking you down then landing his entire body atop of you; Ouch.
Those who know him well tell a different story. They say he is one of those people who loves life and is always happy; ever since...well always. His mom Amaka (who ran track in school) knows this all too well, “He’s always been a joy. He’s been very happy, boisterous, from day one, even as a teeny, weeny baby. He’s a very happy young man. It’s in his DNA,” she said.
Ikem’s given name is Ikemefuna which was taken from the book “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe. Ikemefuna is one of the hero’s in the story. The name roughly translates to English meaning “my effort will not be in vain.”
He usually goes by the nickname “Ickey” which was given to him by his coach in the Pop Warner league because he thought Ikemefuna reminded him of former Bengals running back Ickey Woods.
Ikem’s father Tagbo (who goes by T. J.) was a 6’ 6” Nigerian basketball player who immigrated to the US many years ago to become a medical doctor. His father remembered fondly how Ikem enjoyed everything he did. “He has lived up to his name. Everything he has wanted, he has achieved. But he also had fun with everything he did. Even in sports, playing football at an early age, he was always laughing and smiling.” T. J. said.
Ikem said, “I feel like I’ve always just had that, like, childlike mindset when it comes to football. I’m playing a game. It’s just fun. Anytime I’m running into space, it feels like I’m in the backyard playing flag football. I’ve never lost that playfulness about the game. When I’m running out there, even now, I’m always smiling.”
Although when he walks out on a football field he may be smiling, he is also a mean guy as well. His coach Dave Doeren knows this well. “He’s one of those guys that puts his helmet on and changes, he wants to finish people,” he said.
The thing about Ikem is that growing up he wasn’t even the best football player in his house. His fraternal twin brother Osita was considered the star recruit in the house. Osita was a 4 star linebacker recruit who had offers from Alabama, Notre Dame and Louisville all in the same day. Most of the time recruiters would approach Ikem to try and get him to tell his brother to come to their school, not Ikem. Osita eventually decided to go to Notre Dame.
Ikem then started being more serious about football, “I started wanting to show people that I was the best,” he said. “I wanted to dominate people. But a lot of my motivation came from not wanting to let my team down.”
He furthered his football ascension by taking up high school wrestling. Ikem did pretty well at wrestling eventually winning a state title. That’s when schools started to pay attention to him. He visited NC State with his mother over the summer before his senior year and decided that is where he wanted to play. NC State signed him to an offer letter without ever seeing him play. His future coach Dave Doeren took a trip up to watch him play in high school. He was stunned telling his staff, “It was one of the most impressive performances I’ve ever seen by a lineman. This guy will start as a freshman.”
That began Ikem’s NC State career, but he still a kid at heart and he is still smiling. He roomed with fellow lineman Derrick Eason who he pranked by flipping his huge metal bed over then making it up like a normal bed. Ikem told the story while laughing, “I’m not going to lie, like, the bed was heavy and it was hard to flip over. When he came back, it took him like an hour and a half to flip it back over.”
Ikem has blossomed into a top ten NFL Draft talent because of his superior physical talent and his work ethic. He still has some areas in need of work, but the talent is obvious. Even though Ikem has played the majority of snaps at left tackle (2,023) I think he fits best as a left guard where he also played shortly (233 snaps).
If you watch the left tackle position here you will see how when Ikem has you under control it’s bad news for you.
He takes the defensive end for a stroll away from the QB until he dumps him on his backside well away from the play. Those legs you see there are like huge limbs on an oak tree that come from serious weight room work. Ikem also has very strong hands that can control the biggest defensive lineman. Once he has you squared up with a good grip you have little chance of escape. The point being he has to square you up which is not always easy on the edge, with players who are quick and fast.
Here is a problem he would have outside. He has to protect the player from racing around the corner and taking his QB’s head off so when you have that much bulk you have to be quick about it.
Here Ikem opens too quickly to the outside. Ge lets his opponent counter to the inside where he gets a hit on the QB. Ikem doesn’t have a true slide step which makes it difficult to defend the inside and outside. (BTW PFF has this game as the highest graded game of Ikem’s career with no hits on the QB. It appears to me (although not a sack) there is a huge hit on the QB. I don’t know sometimes what they are watching.
Even though Ikem allowed a pressure, here a lot of what he does wrong will be mitigated by a move inside. He still has to clean up his hands, work on his punch, and get his hands and feet in unison as to not be off balanced. He has great movement skill overall, and his power would be better utilized against larger defensive tackles.
Here you see the movement to the second level, find his target, then use his enormous ability to drive block on a smaller player.
To Ikem this is as easy as 1-2-3 which is 1) find player, 2) drive player out of the picture and of course 3) put said player on his backside, done. You can see that even though it’s a smaller player with much more agility. Once Ikem can get a hold of you and moving backwards, it is pretty much over for you on the play.
A couple of plays later in the same game, this time watch him against the defensive tackle.
There is not a whole lot to describe here. It’s simple one on one blocking where Ikem moves him down the line away from the play without much resistance. The defensive end came off the snap way too high, and you see what happens when Ikem gets position on you with a solid leverage advantage in a running situation. You go backward in a hurry.
This next clip is self inflicted injury suffered by the defensive tackle. Sometimes you are just in the wrong defense for you to be successful.
The defensive line is slanting to the left at the snap which exposes the entire right side of the body to Ikem who takes advantage and deposits him into the mosh pit of bodies in the middle of the line. If not for a nice play by the middle linebacker who knifes through the line that could have been a splash play.
This next play shows some of the athleticism of Ikem as he has no player over his nose or in his gap. This is from 2020 with Ikem lined up as the left guard which is where I believe he will play in the NFL.
This is just bad news for the middle linebacker who takes the brunt of the block. Watch as Ikem slows down because he has no one to block then gets super happy that the middle linebacker is coming over to him. Not only does Ikem put him on his backside. He stays with the play then hammers him again when he tries to get back up.
Ikem you will see does this a lot. He likes to dominate a player, but I also think it gives him a chuckle that he can annihilate a player then do it again right away. It’s why he was called the “meanest player in the ACC.” This would bring a smile to any offensive line coach’s face.
This last clip is more of the same with Ikem working as the left tackle in a wide zone scheme run. Since Ikem doesn’t have a particular player to block he is going to block two players instead of one.
With everyone moving to Ikem’s left he finds a player; any player then proceeds to grab him then toss him to the ground. It was the defender’s bad luck that he was on the end of the line. Since Ikem dusted his man so easily he keeps running and deposits #45 into the sideline for good measure. A good offensive lineman never gives up on the play and he is always looking for someone else to block.
Well there you have it, Ikem is a beast on the offensive line. I know I penciled him in as a left guard but he could be drafted as a tackle as well. He would need a lot of work even though he was much better this year compared to past years. It’s just that with his skill set left guard is just a minor adjustment. Then he is a plug and play starter from day one.
It’s nice to see a kid who has worked hard but enjoyed his work also. That is how he continues to work at his game because he doesn’t consider his game as work. As Ikem himself put it, “At the end of the day, it’s a game,” he said. “No matter if you play good or bad, it’s still a game. It shouldn’t define you. If you carry that mindset I feel like you never lose love for the sport. I don’t plan on ever losing that love.”
And whoever drafts him will love having him.
That’s what I think.
What do you think?