NFL draft: Don't count out NC State 'overachiever' OT Ikem Ekwonu at No. 1 overall

In any other family, Ikem Ekwonu's ascension to being one of the top prospects in the 2022 NFL draft — and perhaps all the way to the top — might provide years worth of family boasting.

And it's not as if the family of the mauling, massive North Carolina State offensive tackle isn't proud of Ekwonu and what potentially lies ahead for him. It's just that in this family of overachievers, his level of accomplishment is essentially the standard.

Ekwonu's father, Tagbo (aka "TJ"), was a college basketball player at University of Nigeria, earned his medical degree and is now practicing family medicine outside of Charlotte.

His mother, Amaka, ran track in Nigeria and holds records in the hurdles and the 200 meters. She first became an accountant before helping run her husband's office.

Older sister Adaora is in medical school at the prestigious University of Chicago, perhaps considering going into psychiatry.

Oldest brother Chike is a 2D animator who has worked on shows you might have seen: "Paradise PD," "Brickleberry" and "Rick and Morty" among them.

And Ikem's twin brother, Osita, is a fellow business major who plays football at Notre Dame.

Ikem — short for Ikemefuna, which means “my effort will not be in vain” — is merely the latest astounding family success story to come along.

"Family of overachievers," Ekwonu said, flashing a wide, proud smile. "That's a good way to put it."

As he heads to next week's NFL scouting combine, Ekwonu at least remains in the discussion to be the first pick in the draft. If his history is any indication, we can't rule out that possibility.

North Carolina State OT Ikem Ekwonu (79) pulls to block during during — and you had better not get in his way. (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)
North Carolina State OT Ikem Ekwonu (79) pulls to block — and you had better not get in his way. (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)

Ikem Ekwonu's stock is rising ... and so are his stocks

Ekwonu is no one-trick pony. Yes, NFL scouts drool over the vast potential in his 6-foot-4, 325-pound frame. But day traders might be smart to pay close attention to what the business administration major says when it comes to boosting their portfolios.

Sure, Ekwonu admits to some financial missteps after his trading saw an uptick during the COVID lockdowns in early 2020.

"[When] I started out, I was a little scared of losing money," Ekwonu told Yahoo Sports. "So some of my poorer investments. … I actually bought some Moderna when it was trading at like $60, $70 [per share]. It went down one time and I got scared and sold it. I think it’s trading at like $170 now. I wish I held onto it. Those are the mistakes you make when you’re starting out."

But he's learned some patience along the way, too. Now Ekwonu's money is mostly tied up in an ETF (exchange-traded fund) — Direxion Daily S&P Oil & Gas, ticker name: GUSH.

Over the past few days, it's up about $15 per share. Over the past month, it's up more than $25. Over the past six months, up nearly $50.

"I feel it’s a little bit safer," Ekwonu said, "and I can just leave my money in there a little bit."

The NFL team that invests in Ekwonu would be smart to engage with similar patience. The fast riser was something of an unknown outside of ACC country this time a year ago, more potential than sure thing. But it wasn't long before he became a household name — and now, Ekwonu is considered a likely top-10 pick and even a possible dark horse to go No. 1 overall.

Growing up, Ekwonu sold Cutco knives door to door one summer and shocked people with how effective a salesman he was, winning over customers with his charm, knowledge of the products and convincing pitch. Now he wants to make his sales pitch directly to the Jacksonville Jaguars, owners of the No. 1 overall pick, to consider him as their best option atop the draft.

"I just feel like when you turn the film on, there’s nobody in the class that you can see as dominant as me," he said. "I take pride in that. I feel like the refinement in my game in pass pro, especially from the 2020 season to the 2021 season, you can see it on film."

Ekwonu knows his stock isn't fully matured and that there's "plenty of work to be done," he said, including answering questions about whether he's ready to be a trusted pass protector. But he's not dialing back his confidence in being able to get done any job he's asked.

"If my pass-pro technique is really the weakness in my game, then I have a strong case to go No. 1," Ekwonu said. "Just turn the film on, see my blocks and trust that whatever I need to fix I am going to get fixed."

From turning down Harvard to becoming college football's best 'pancake' blocker

It has been quite a period of growth for Ekwonu to reach this plateau, however. He was considered the lesser of the two twins, recruiting-wise, when they were coming out of Providence Day in Charlotte. Ikem was a three-star Rivals recruit, with Osita earning four stars.

Ikem chose North Carolina State over some impressive academic institutions, including Harvard and Yale in the Ivy League, along with Vanderbilt and others. Three things drew him to the school: the family atmosphere with the Wolfpack, the business school (Poole College of Management) and the work of NC State's strength coach, Dantonio “Thunder” Burnette.

Ekownu had decent mass coming out of high school, weighing around 280-285 pounds, and he had unusual athletic traits, winning a state title as a wrestler and starting out his football journey as a third-grade running back playing against seventh- and eighth-graders. (That's where he earned the nickname "Ickey," when his coach said he looked like former Bengals back Ickey Woods.)

"Coach Thunder was really a big draw for me," said Ekwonu, who couldn't help but notice that NC State's entire defensive line had just been drafted when he was considering the school. "I knew I could add good weight. I felt like all I needed was the right development and that Coach Thunder was the right guy for me."

But Ekwonu was on a faster track than most realized, becoming the first true freshman at the school to start at left tackle in nearly a decade, sliding into the lineup in the sixth game in 2019 and keeping the job. He earned the team's Philip Rivers Award (Rookie of the Year) and also made the Dean's list.

As a sophomore in 2020, Ekwonu was moved to left guard for four games before settling back in to left guard. Perhaps the position switch was to blame, but it shocked ACC coaches not to see the ascending blocker named to the AP all-conference first team. Instead, Ekwonu was named second-team All-ACC — at both guard and tackle.

By this point, Ekwonu was over the 320-pound mark and earning a reputation as one of college football's best road graders. NC State head coach Dave Doeren started a fun reward system: giving out bottles of syrup for every pancake block players delivered in games.

It's not stunning who tops that sweet list.

"At this point, I think I have close to 200 [bottles]," Ekwonu said. The syrup system became so popular, it got extended past the offensive linemen to special teamers, even receivers and running backs. But in Raleigh, there was one pancake chef who dominated the griddle the past three seasons.

Asked what his favorite pancake block was, Ekwonu prefers picking the entire stack.

"I don’t want to brag or anything ... but I have so many to choose from!" he said. "I feel if I made a highlight reel of this season, it would go viral. I can’t choose just one."

NFL scouts know all about the dominant run-blocking ability. The feedback Ekwonu received last summer from them was that they were still concerned about his pass-protection skills. So Ekwonu set out on a mission this season to prove that he's not just a slobberknocker in the run game but also a quarterback's keeper.

"A lot of the talk coming into last season was just moving me into guard immediately," Ekwonu said. "I believe that had a lot to do with my inefficiencies in pass protection. That was something I really harped on this past offseason, and it shined in my pass pro."

Ekwonu would be fine bumping inside if an NFL team wants him to, but he believes his improvement proves "to scouts that I can [be] and am a left tackle."

The numbers bear out his improvement, too. According to Pro Football Focus, Ekwonu's sacks allowed dropped from seven in 2020 (on 463 pass-pro snaps) to three in 2021 (on 500 pass snaps), including an eight-game streak with zero sacks allowed last season.

"Most of the feedback now is that scouts like me at left tackle," he said, "because of the film I put out this year."

Ekwonu ready to put on a show at NFL combine, make run at No. 1 pick

One scout Yahoo Sports spoke with compared Ekwonu to "a shorter, thicker Trent Williams," saying he expects Ekwonu to have "a pretty big combine" performance.

Ekwonu doesn't disagree. He's likely to impress on the bench press, and his agility work and position-drill movement skills are likely going to show out as well.

And whether it truly matters for offensive linemen or not, Ekwonu is excited about his chance to run the 40-yard dash. He's been working on his technique for his pre-draft training at Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, California, and has taken lessons from noted speed coach Les Spellman.

Coach Thunder has previously predicted that Ekwonu might run a faster 40 time that even former Wolfpack center Garrett Bradbury's 4.92-second 40 in 2019 — despite Bradbury having weighed in 20 or more pounds lighter than Ekwonu.

"That’s definitely the goal for me, to run in the 4.9s, for sure," Ekwonu said.

After all, this is a young man who once volunteered to help out with the 4x100 relays in high school — running anchor, no less.

"I did it twice, I believe," Ekwonu said. "I was around 280, 285 pounds. I was coming right off wrestling season, so I might have been around 290.

"That was one of my favorite track moments. We called it the '4xBeef.' It was all the throwers on the team, and all the offensive linemen really, racing against the cross country team."

The video, courtesy of The Athletic, is something to behold. Young men that large aren't built to move that fast.

Match that brilliance at the combine, and perhaps Ekwonu suddenly becomes an unexpected but fascinating possibility atop the draft in a year in which there's no clear-cut top selection now.

Remember the "Ickey" nickname? Well, Ekwonu said that when he first heard the comparison to Woods, he had to master Woods' famous "Ickey Shuffle" dance as a kid. Ekwonu not only hasn't forgotten the steps years later — he's even given it his own adaptation.

"I actually added my own twist to it, but I am saving it for whenever I get a chance to score," he said. "You’re going to have to wait on that."

And asked if he'd consider busting out the reimagined "Ickey Shuffle" on stage in Las Vegas if he were to be picked first overall, Ekwonu's eyes lit up.

"Me and Roger [Goodell] on stage, hmm," Ekwonu said, almost metaphorically stroking his chin at the idea.

If we've learned anything about the Ekwonu way, it's that no feat might be too large, even getting the 63-year old commissioner to dance. That's the charm and determination Ekwonu possesses.