Ikem Ekwonu is expected to be the first of a group of agile, speedy offensive linemen drafted, the better to keep up with evolving playbooks and scampering quarterbacks.
Offensive linemen have always loved “pancakes” — no-doubt-about-it blocks that end with them flexing over flattened defenders.
But Ikem Ekwonu, a likely top-10 pick in this year’s N.F.L. draft, which begins Thursday, is a rarity: He is 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 ran a standard handoff. His job was to wedge the defender opposite him toward the sideline and create space for running back Ricky Person Jr. At the snap, Ekwonu, a 6-foot-4, 310-pound left tackle, shot out of his stance so quickly that he had time to swivel around and wall off his matchup with his back turned, waving Person through the alley he had opened.
“Then he runs another 20 yards downfield and pancakes another guy,” John Garrison, the Wolfpack offensive line coach, said. The play ended in a 24-yard touchdown.
Highlights like that one have cemented Ekwonu’s status at the vanguard of a wave of offensive line prospects, including Evan Neal of the University of Alabama and Charles Cross of Mississippi State, expected to be selected early in the draft. Their speed and mobility are in high demand at what have traditionally been football’s burliest positions. At this year’s draft scouting combine, Cross was one of 12 offensive linemen to run the 40-yard dash in less than five seconds — Ekwonu clocked in at 4.93 seconds — twice as many as the previous record of six, set in 2013.
“When they think of offensive linemen, people get stuck on the numbers, height and weight,” Ekwonu, 21, said in an interview this month. “But the intangible stuff: Are you flexible? Can you bend? Can you sprint around a corner, get square, keep your balance? That stuff is really important, and it’s all tied to mobility.”
In 2013, the last time a lineman was drafted first overall, the N.F.L. had just finished a season in which five quarterbacks ran for at least 300 yards. Last season featured 10 such quarterbacks. Where years ago a tackle’s assignment was often straightforward — keep a pocket passer upright — that player now may have to chaperone a trick-play end around on one snap and run interference for a scrambling signal-caller the next.
“Back when it was Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning, it was more old-school football,” Jordan Reid, an ESPN draft analyst said. “You had these big, powerful men trying to overpower guys at the point of attack. Now it’s all about winning with angles, having these athletic linemen that can seal off pass rushers and run defenders as opposed to trying to just plow through them.”
It’s also a matter of keeping up with the athletes opposite them. Teams a decade ago didn’t have to block Aaron Donald, the undersized but blink-quick pass rusher who paced the Los Angeles Rams’ Super Bowl run last season.
“You have these defensive linemen now who are freak athletes,” Geoff Schwartz, an offensive lineman who played six N.F.L. seasons, said. “That’s why it’s so important that these offensive linemen are matching that athleticism.”
Entering college, Ekwonu did not look like a future first-rounder. A youth football coach called him Ickey, after the 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. (Top prospects can be 6-6 and weigh well over 300 pounds entering college.)
But Garrison and the rest of the Wolfpack coaches saw potential in Ekwonu’s light feet, loose hips and balance, attributes he had developed wrestling and, on a couple of occasions, used to anchor the 4×100 relay team at Providence Day School in Charlotte, N.C.
“The first time I saw him, he was walking in a handstand across the room,” Garrison said. “Just his athleticism and quick-twitch speed were very impressive.”
Ekwonu’s weight surpassed 300 pounds as a freshman, and he thrived in a system that asked him to be more than a “jug butt,” as Garrison describes all-muscle-no-hustle maulers. Ekwonu’s routes from snap to snap had nearly as much variety as those of a wide receiver.
On up-the-middle runs, he would bring defensive ends to a standstill; on wide pitches, he would speed out toward the sideline and wallop a linebacker. In all, he notched 67 pancakes in his last season at North Carolina State.
“Teams knew what we were going to run,” Ekwonu said. “That just made me want to beat them even more. Anytime you can run the ball on someone who knows what’s coming, it just feels good.”
Leading up to the combine, Ekwonu worked with trainers from the biomechanics company Sports Academy. He had two main goals: to lock in a reliable 40 time — he hadn’t run one in more than five years — and to prep for the even bigger demands for N.F.L. linemen. His trainers likened Ekwonu’s burst to that of a skill position player more than 100 pounds lighter, a quality that might once have been a luxury and is now almost requisite.
“You have to be more athletic and able to carry on a play for a longer duration,” Taylor Ramsey, a Sports Academy trainer, said. “It’s not three to six seconds anymore, it’s five to eight, being able to make one play at the line and then another one downfield.”
Ekwonu’s N.F.L. 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 intricate schemes, which can involve fullbacks splitting out to wide receiver and wideouts taking handoffs, Williams sometimes lines up away from his normal left tackle position. When Williams shifts into the backfield, ready to hurry to some surprising spot and knock over whomever he meets there, Ekwonu sees a blueprint for how his future team might use him.
“I feel like the N.F.L. is really good at playing to the personnel they have,” Ekwonu said. “Really playing to their strengths.” His next team will have a few to choose from.