The 2021 college football season began with a player from a North Carolina school being hyped as the possible No. 1 overall pick in the next NFL Draft.
Three weeks out from the draft, that’s still the case.
Only now instead of UNC quarterback Sam Howell generating all the buzz, it’s NC State offensive tackle Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu that’s in the conversation to be the first player to have his name called by commissioner Roger Goodell in Las Vegas on Thursday, April 28.
If that happens, he’ll join defensive end Mario Williams in 2006 as the only Wolfpack player to be chosen No. 1 in an NFL Draft. Quarterback Roman Gabriel was also a top pick, taken No. 1 by the Oakland Raiders of the old AFL in 1962.
“I wouldn’t be shocked if I went No. 1 overall,” Ekwonu said during an interview session at the NFL’s pre-draft combine in Indianapolis last month. “I feel like that’s something I’ve put the work in for.
“With my work ethic … ask any coach — I definitely put the work in. I do everything I can every day to fulfill those expectations.”
At 6-foot-4, 310 pounds, Ekwonu is an imposing physical presence who impressed NFL scouts at the Combine with his surprising agility and speed for a man his size. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.93 seconds and received a prospect grade of 6.73, the fourth highest in this year’s class.
The three-year college starter won the ACC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the league’s top offensive lineman in 2021 while amassing 67 pancake blocks and 18 knockdowns. He also went eight straight games without allowing a sack in helping State to a nine-win season.
Despite those credentials, NFL.com draft analyst Bucky Brooks believes Ekwonu has still only scratched the surface of his vast potential.
“Big men aren’t supposed to move like that,” Brooks wrote in a social media post after watching the Wolfpack star perform at the Combine. “Icky (sic) Ekwonu is different. He’s at an elite level simply due to his athleticism and movement skills. If he becomes an A-level technician, you’re talking about a super star. A real super star.”
It was the same kind of projection being thrown around about Howell last summer. But the UNC junior’s stock dropped quickly as his production — and the Tar Heels’ performance — failed to live up to what turned out to be unrealistic preseason expectations.
Howell’s “struggles” were more a matter of perception and a lack of experienced offensive weapons surrounding him than reality. He still managed to rank among the top 10 of FBS players in total offense per game while setting school records for passing yards and passing touchdowns.
His draft prospects have started to rebound thanks to a solid offseason, and with a quarterback class that’s generally considered to be weak, several mock drafts still have him going in the first round — though it’s just as likely that he’ll fall into the top half of the second round.
“One thing I’ve learned in my many years as a head coach is that nobody knows what’s going to happen in the draft,” UNC coach Mack Brown said in a post-Pro Day media conference last week. “There’s so many models … but it takes just one team to pick you, and those teams aren’t going to show their cards now and tell you who they’re going to draft. I sure hope he’s in the first round.”
Among the teams showing the most interest in Howell at his recent Pro Day workout were the New York Giants, New Orleans Saints and Washington Commanders.
He also had conversations with the Carolina Panthers at the Combine, fueling speculation that his hometown team might be interested in taking the Indian Trail native either with the sixth overall pick or by trading down to take him later.
The Panthers have also been linked to Liberty quarterback Malik Willis while also considering help for their porous offensive line. Carolina’s first-round pick is an important one since it won’t be on the clock again until late in the fourth round (137th overall).
Wherever Howell goes, the wait for the next player with state college ties to be selected figures to be a long one.
UNC offensive guard Joshua Ezeudu has the highest projection as a potential fourth-rounder, while NC State running back Bam Knight, Wake Forest center Zach Tom and Appalachian State linebacker D’Marco Jackson are all projected as fifth-round possibilities.
Other possible draftees include East Carolina cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian, UNC linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel and offensive lineman Marcus McKethan, and Fayetteville State cornerback Joshua Williams.
Williams’ stock has been soaring because of his size and performances at both the Senior Bowl and the Combine. If his name is called, he will become the first player from his school since 1976 to be drafted.