'Nothing ever takes his joy': Why NFL defenders will soon fear potential No. 1 pick Ikem Ekwonu - 12 minutes read

IKEM EKWONU HAS an uncanny ability to size up a man from the opposite side of the line of scrimmage and instantly decide how he'll whip the guy. Perhaps it stems from his days as a high school wrestler, when each bout was a mano-a-mano showdown in which dominance must be established. That's still Ekwonu's mantra.

"Whoever is in front of me," Ekwonu said, "I just want to bury him."

Off the field, Ekwonu oozes joy from every pore in his body, but on it, there is only one objective.

What happens is, the ball is snapped and in the instant Ekwonu gets his hands on the rusher he senses the outcome: If he has leverage, things are going to end very badly for the man who has chosen a path to the football that goes through him.

"I can almost anticipate I'm going to pancake him," Ekwonu said.

NC State awards a bottle of syrup for each pancake block its linemen deliver. Ekwonu basically has enough inventory to operate a chain of Waffle Houses.

There's a play from Ekwonu's sophomore year that his head coach, Dave Doeren, still keeps thinking about. NC State was playing Wake Forest and the Wolfpack ran a draw. Ekwonu hit the first defender at the line of scrimmage and absolutely leveled the guy. Buried him into turf. This is the type of block for which the burly left tackle has become known, the type that will make him a top NFL draft pick in a few weeks -- maybe even the first overall selection.

But that's not the special part. What really sets Ekwonu apart came next. Ekwonu calls them "money blocks."

"I get in space, and then I kind of know," he said. "That's where I use my footwork and technique and knowledge of how to cut off angles, and you just know if this guy wants to make a play, he's going to have to go through me. And he's not doing that. If it's between me and him and there's a collision, I'm winning that."

That's what happened on that draw play against Wake Forest. Ekwonu left one man prone, burst beyond the line of scrimmage and delivered a second pancake block, toppling a linebacker like a stack of Legos.

Beyond that awaited a defensive back. Poor guy. Ekwonu is 6-4, 310 pounds and ran the anchor leg for his high school relay team. Guys his size aren't supposed to move that way, but who has time to consider the physics of this scenario when they're about to be leveled by a wrecking ball? Boom. Pancake No. 3.

"He's just throwing guys around like a bouncer at a bar," Doeren said. "Three pancakes on one play. I'm like, 'This is unreal.'"

And if Doeren is in disbelief even now thinking about this play, it's fair to say there isn't a soul outside the Ekwonu homestead in Charlotte, North Carolina, who saw this type of success coming. Because four years ago Ekwonu wasn't a burgeoning NFL-level talent. He was just a big kid with a big personality and a twin brother with a far bigger recruiting pedigree.

IT'S ENTIRELY POSSIBLE Ekwonu could be the first player selected in this month's NFL draft, and it still wouldn't necessarily earn him prized status in his immediate family.

It's an accomplished group -- a family of high achievers.

Ekwonu's father, T.J., immigrated to Charlotte from Nigeria in the 1990s and now works as a family doctor. His mother, Amaka, who moved to the U.S. in the 1980s, was a track star in high school and now manages operations for T.J.'s family-owned practice. His older brother works in graphic design as an animator. His older sister is in medical school at the University of Chicago, looking to follow in her father's footsteps. And Ikem's fraternal twin, Osita, was an ESPN 300 recruit at linebacker who had offers from virtually every blue-blood program in the country before ultimately landing at Notre Dame.

"That's always been the standard at my house," Ekwonu, 21, said. "Whatever passion you wanted to pursue, you wanted to achieve it at the highest level."

Oh yes, those passions. Ekwonu has a few.

In grade school, he was into musical theater. He was in a handful of plays, including a role as Pongo in "101 Dalmations." Osita played a dog catcher.

Ikem wrestled. He ran track. He was in the chorus. He's a good dancer. He was on the student council. He understands the cryptocurrency market.

But Ekwonu's true passion is football. He started playing Pop Warner when he was 9. He was "big for his age," he said, so the league made him play up a level with older kids. Amaka was terrified. She had actually forced him to do an extra year of flag football out of fear he'd get hurt, which is normal mom behavior, but the truth is it was the other moms who should have been worried. Both Ekwonu brothers dwarfed their opposition.

"I actually used to be the bigger twin," said Osita, who now stands about 3 inches shy of his brother. "It happened out of nowhere that he outpaced me."

Osita was an obvious talent. In high school, he started on varsity as a freshman. Ikem had potential but was less refined. He spent a year-and-a-half playing for the JV team.

"[Osita] was physically mature, and you could tell he'd grow into a really physical [force]," said Adam Hastings, who coached the boys at Providence Day high school. "Ickey was kind of a kid who was a little unsure of himself. He wasn't 6-4 then."

Osita became a premier recruit with offers from Alabama, Auburn and Ohio State. Hastings remembers some coaches feigning interest in Ikem, just to get the inside track on landing Osita. That was a mistake.

"There was never any jealousy," Osita said. "We were always supportive of each other."

If anything, Ikem was inspired by the slights. Even now he insists he carries a sizable chip on his shoulder, but back then it was a driving force. He worked out. He gained weight. He played on both sides of the line, and a few schools pegged him as a future defensive end.

Initially, Ikem and Osita hoped to play college ball together, but when NC State showed interest in Ikem, it became clear the brothers were set for separate destinations.

In Ikem, Doeren saw a genuine prized recruit. ("He was a five-star for us," Doeren said.) He'd seen the kid wrestle, and he had visions of that same technique translated to the O-line. He saw the huge frame, and he knew NC State's strength program could add the muscle needed to turn him into a star. Doeren watched Ekwonu play football and was astonished by the way he ran.

"There just aren't a lot of guys like that," Doeren said.

Ikem ended up a three-star recruit, but he was the crown jewel of NC State's class. Doeren believed, before Ekwonu even set foot on campus, that he'd be the Wolfpack's starting left tackle from day one. When NC State's offensive line coach, Dwayne Ledford, departed just weeks before signing day in 2019, Doeren called Ekwonu with a promise.

"Trust me," Doeren said. "I'm going to find someone who's going to be behind you and help you grow."

THE SUMMER BEFORE Ekwonu's freshman season at NC State, new O-line coach John Garrison took his position group on a rafting trip to build morale. Class 4 rapids, no joke for a bunch of novices. But Garrison figured his guys would have little trouble out-muscling the river. If anything, Garrison had the plum position on one raft, sitting just in front of Ekwonu.

A half-hour into the trip, Garrison was exhausted. The guide was shouting to pick up the pace, but Garrison was paddling with every ounce of his strength, and at best he'd battled the current to a draw. How was this possible? Eventually, he craned his neck to check on his young prospect, who was frantically splashing his oar into the water like a knife, moving absolutely nothing in the process.

"And that was the beginning of me teaching him technique," Garrison said.

If Doeren was sold on Ekwonu as his Day 1 starter, Garrison needed some convincing.

That first season, Ekwonu was 30% body fat, he said, his footwork was a mess, and he lacked any real flexibility in his knees and ankles. He did indeed land the starting job at left tackle, but mostly Ekwonu got by on brute force. Garrison compared Ekwonu's technique to slam dancing at a metal concert. He wanted to teach his left tackle how to ballroom dance.

"After his freshman year," Garrison said, "he started to really focus on his footwork and his technique."

That was the COVID-19 year. Ekwonu spent the bulk of that offseason at home, learning via Zoom and finding ways to practice. Still, he made progress.

After one practice, Doeren was showing the team a highlight video of precisely executed fundamentals. Up flashed a clip of Ekwonu dismantling a defender. From the back of the room a voice cried out.

"Hey Coach," Ekwonu said, "that's me!"

The details of the game fascinated Ekwonu. He loved the nuance, the subtext, the little tricks he could use to gain an advantage. It suited his academic nature. Football wasn't so much a game as it was a puzzle to solve, and he is good at puzzles.

NC State was one of 2020's biggest surprises -- going from 4-8 the previous year to 8-4 in spite of myriad injuries -- and Ekwonu anchored the offensive line. He finished the year with 50 pancake blocks and 22 knockdowns.

"Every Sunday after a game, there's a team meeting to go over big plays," center Grant Gibson said. "And normally, nobody watches the offensive line. But we'd all get excited because we knew we'd get like 10 plays of Ickey just blowing people off the field. And that just doesn't happen. People don't get excited for the offensive line. But I've seen Ickey throw grown men 5 yards down the field. And not small guys. Like 300-pound guys."

By 2021, Ekwonu had come into his own. NC State won nine games. The Wolfpack's offense was exceptional. Ekwonu finished with 67 pancakes and was a finalist for the Outland Trophy. He was a consensus All-American.

And the funny thing is, when NFL scouts and general managers have called Garrison this offseason to inquire about his prized prospect, he barely mentions those accolades.

"His No. 1 quality, and I've never seen anything like it, is he doesn't have a bad day," Garrison said. "Nothing ever takes his joy."

EKWONU BEGAN EVERY practice at NC State the same way. He'd sprint onto the field. No jogging. A full sprint. As a kid, Ekwonu got the nickname "Ickey" from his Pop Warner coach, who thought he looked a little like former Bengals running back Ickey Woods, but sprinting across the field these days, he's closer to a runaway freight train than a tailback.

The Wolfpack begin with a quick walk-through, then stretch on the opposite side of the field. Another sprint. Then the show really begins.

It started during camp in 2019. It was hot and muggy and the team was whipped -- but not Ickey.

"He screamed the entire warmup," Gibson said. "Everybody on the field just stopped and stared."

This was not entirely new.

"Growing up, he was -- a little bit challenging," Amaka Ekwonu said. "You either loved it or you didn't. People love it now because he's more mature and controlled, but as a kid, he could be a little impulsive. He was just very, very friendly and very, very loud and happy."

In high school, Hastings would give Ekwonu rides home from practice, and when they'd reach Ekwonu's driveway, they'd sit in Hastings' truck and talk and joke and tell stories -- sometimes for an hour or more.

"He wouldn't stop talking," Hastings said.

Now, Ekwonu had found his perfect venue, and his chorus quickly became tradition. Every warmup, from start to finish, was filled with the soundtrack of Ekwonu yelling at the top of his lungs -- inspiration, hype, song lyrics and a few choice words Gibson doesn't want to repeat on the record.

"He gets us all juiced up," Gibson said. "He can just light up a room."

The pre-draft routine can overwhelm some players -- all the questions, the prodding, the near constant evaluation. Ekwonu has loved it, "a chance to talk ball with some of the best minds in the game," he said.

Turn on the film, and it's all there -- enough to make Ekwonu one of the safest picks in the draft. But those conversations with scouts might be a better tool to evaluate Ekwonu's real value.

In high school, Hastings would take the linemen out to dinner. Ekwonu insisted that for one meal, the group eat at a Nigerian restaurant in Charlotte. When the crew arrived, Ekwonu played host.

"He wanted everyone to try every dish," Hastings said.

Ekwonu took care of the order, talked to the waiters, explained each dish -- a big smile on his face -- for nearly three hours.

Want to know what an NFL team is getting with Ikem Ekwonu? That's what Hastings thinks about: a guy who can make a team full of linemen feel at home in a Nigerian restaurant, because every person there -- from the players to the cooks -- just wanted to exist in his orbit.

"That's always the energy I want to put into the air," Ekwonu said. "Just be positive and happy and joyous because the stuff you put out goes right back to you."

Source: www.espn.com - NFL