North Carolina State hasn’t really been been a football powerhouse in a long time. Over the past 14 years, they have had two first round picks, Bradley Chubb (2018) and Garrett Bradbury (2019). Gone are the days of Mario Williams and Philip Rivers, but 2021 has been a solid season with the Top 20 finish in the AP Poll. A big reason for the successful season is Left Tackle Ikem Ekwonu (pronounced EE-kehm eck-WAHN-ew). If you haven’t watched him yet, it is time to grab the popcorn and turn on his film.
Ikem is a second generation immigrant after his father T.J. played college basketball in Nigeria and emigrated to the United States. His mother Amaka was a track star in her own right. He grew up alongside his twin brother Osita (a football player at Notre Dame) and is multi-talented. A young man close to my hear, Ikem even participated in a musical theater group as a kid. Ultimately, his path led him to being a dominant high school player on the offensive and defensive lines and finding his “home” at NC State.
In 2019, Ekwonu started almost immediately at Left Tackle as a true freshman and got a reputation as an absolute bully in the run game. The highlight game against Georgia Tech with seven pancake blocks solidified his place in setting that edge. Even as a work in progress in pass protection, Ekwonu earned Second-team All-ACC honors.
The team moved him to LG for his sophomore season, but a few games into the year, they needed that power back at LT. With pancakes abound, Ekwonu had his second straight Academic All-ACC year, and made first-team All-ACC.
Ekwonu was on NFL Draft radars this past season as a Junior, but he played at another level. With even more accolades, he has declared early for the draft and is well on that NFL radar.
Offensive Linemen can often be frustrating to watch due to lack of consistency or overwhelming elite traits. But, Ekwonu ranks up there as one of my favorite O-linemen to watch in my 17 years covering the NFL Draft.
Before the season, we had him as a Guard prospect for this upcoming draft. He had played LG and is 320 pounds. A dominant run blocking guard is an option, but his play at Tackler was better than expected.
Ekwonu’s aggression and high motor are always on display and he wants to dominate every rep. It is easy to find videos online of Ekwonu just blasting all kinds of defenders play after play this season. Great hand placement with with a lower body drive to achieve maximum power leads to pancake after pancake in the run game. Against weaker competition, he made defensive linemen look like rag dolls. It is scary.
Pass protection is the big question, and that is what Ekwonu answered this season. For example, he was matched up with future 1st round pick Myles Murphy in the Clemson game. It was quite the battle, but Ekwonu held up athletically often with a great mirror not allowing pressure from the corner. This increased mobility and kickside creates huge NFL upside.
Ekwonu is the best run blocking lineman in the draft, bar none. His athletic development as a pass blocker over his three year career shows promise for him to be an elite blindside blocker. With more development in footwork and instincts, Ekwonu could make a gigantic difference for a team’s QB and running game.
It is a common trope for top tackles to say “Well, if they don’t work out, move them to Guard” but it is where I thought Ekwonu’s best fit was before the season! It is always a possibility and I’d be very surprised if Ekwonu wasn’t at least an NFL starter for a long time barring injury.
All things considered, Ekwonu should be a Top Ten pick and be in consideration for the Top 5 if a team really needs Offensive Line help.