Ickey Ekwonu is ready to "dominate"

Ickey Ekwonu

INDIANAPOLIS — Ickey Ekwonu is used to the spotlight.

Sometimes, that's for his football ability.

The Charlotte native is one of the top prospects at his offensive tackle position at the Scouting Combine, but he also shared a bit on Thursday about one of his first loves — musical theater.

Ekwonu laughed as he recalled his elementary school star turn, when he landed the role of Pongo in a production of "101 Dalmations" as a fifth-grader.

"That was a big step for me," Ekwonu said, explaining that he was "just a regular alley cat," in the previous year's production of The Aristocats, and a background player in The Jungle Book. "Pongo the dog, he's the father of all the dalmatians, so throughout the whole musical I'm looking for my dogs, looking for my babies. That was definitely fun."

Of course, that's not the kind of talent NFL scouts are looking for this week, but it does provide a glimpse of the kind of well-rounded person Ewonu is. He talked about becoming a more empathetic person through his theater background, which helps him fit into locker rooms filled with players of every background. He was also involved in student government and the honors chorus in high school, excelling on and off the field.

But when he walks onto a football field, he takes on a completely different character. He was a physically imposing blocker at N.C. State, and added a little flourish at the end of pancake blocks by pointing at the defender he just put on the ground.

"I feel like if you ask anybody back at State, they'll tell you I have the most fun on the field," Ekwonu said. "I love this game so much; I love the offensive line, being able to impose my will when I want on defenders. And that's something I take a lot of pride in. Every time I get on the field, it feels like I'm a kid again playing flag football. I have a lot of fun with this game, have a lot of fun dominating people, and that's one of the best parts about the job.

"I kind of just started pointing out defenders when I pancake them; that's fun for me. I talk a little bit less than I did my freshman year, but if they talk to me, I'll talk back. I just love dominating people. and I feel like you see that on film the different ways I can do that."

That kind of edge was something Adam Hastings saw early on, when he coached Ekwonu at Providence Day School in Charlotte.

Ickey Ekwonu

"Oh, he was always going to get a personal foul," Hastings said with a laugh. "But most of the time, the payoff was worth the penalty."

When Ekwonu walked in as a 6-foot-1, 240-pound freshman, there was clearly some physical talent there, but it was raw enough that he spent his first year on the JV team, while his brother Osita (now a linebacker at Notre Dame) stood out early. By their junior years, they were two-way starters on the varsity team and earning recruiting notice on both sides of the ball.

But for all the talent they had, Hastings was impressed by the character they displayed. During Ekwonu's senior season, Hastings took three days off for the birth of a child.

"He FaceTimed me every day I was out, before and after practice, to talk about what needed to be done in practice that day, and what they had accomplished," Hastings said. "He just had such a desire to be a good teammate and a great player, he wanted to be coached hard. That's why I knew that whatever he ended up doing, he was going to be successful.

"If we ever had a kid who was struggling, we could send Ickey to go help him. And he'd go from not knowing him to being his best friend. Now, he might steal his food, but he'd be his best friend."

Hastings laughed and said as much as he hopes Ekwonu goes first overall, he "selfishly" hoped he'd fall to six to the local team. You get the sense they might be fine with that as well.

Ickey Ekwonu

Ekwonu recalled growing up watching Panthers games, being a fan of Cam Newton and Greg Olsen. He said he's watched a little film of left tackle Jordan Gross, but it's another Panthers legend he seems to identify with.

"Steve Smith, I just loved the mindset he had to come into the game and wanted to dominate people," Ekwonu said. "There's a lot of different ways you can dominate people on the field. I feel like as a wide receiver Steve Smith definitely put that on film."

While Smith did it as a little guy, Ekwonu has the kind of size to overpower opponents in a different way.

The 6-foot-4, 320-pounder admits he's still evolving as a player. He played some guard at N.C. State, and said he'd do whatever a team wanted him to do, but left tackles of his ability are rare.

"I feel like I'm definitely barely scratching the surface of my potential at left tackle," he said. "And I feel like with some more development, a little more refinement at my game, I can definitely be great at that position."

That appears to be the consensus opinion, as Ekwonu's projected to be one of the top three tackles in this year's draft, and possibly the first overall pick. He's met with the Jaguars (owner of that first pick) and is among the players at the position the Panthers are investigating closely with that sixth pick.

While he's a mauling blocker, he does acknowledge his need to become more technically sound, which he's tried to communicate to teams in meetings.

"I just want coaches to understand I'm not just a run-blocking meathead," he said. "I have a lot of football IQ, and I love talking about the game with coaches and learning. I've never been shy about putting the work in and refining my game. Any weaknesses in pass protection, I just want the coaches and the GMs to know I'm going to get that fixed."

Mostly, he talks about overwhelming opponents.

"My physicality, my dominating nature," he replied when asked about his strengths. "I love running to the ball, whether that's helping a teammate up or finding someone I can just hit. I chase the ball, I chase plays, and I just feel like a lot of my most dominating plays are made downfield, so I feel like that's one of my biggest strengths."

That, and singing. And just about anything else he puts his mind to.

View AP images from downtown Indianapolis, the site of the 2022 NFL Combine.

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