In his first two drafts as general manger of the New York Jets, Joe Douglas selected an offensive lineman in the first round. With two picks in the top 10 of next month's draft, Douglas could make it 3 for 3. On Thursday at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, some of the nation's top OL prospects met with the media.
Here are some Sounds from America's Heartland…
Leader of the Pack
NC State's Ikem "Ickey" Ekwonu is about to become a centerpiece of an NFL offensive line, but he got one of his first leading roles in theatre.
"I was in the 'Jungle Book,' I was in 'The Aristocats', '101 Dalmatians,' a couple of different spots," he told reporters. "I actually got the lead in '101 Dalmatians.' I was Pongo the dog, so that was a big step for me."
In the Disney classic, Ekwonu was on the search for puppies.
"He's the father of all the dalmatians, so throughout the whole musical, I'm looking for my dogs, I'm looking for my babies," he said.
Ekwonu, a big dog who would like to play left tackle on Sunday, is a fierce competitor known for his athleticism and run blocking. He acknowledges he has to refine some of his pass-blocking technique -- he doesn't want to open up too soon and give up soft edges. But there is nothing soft in Ekwonu's game.
"I feel like if you ask anybody back at State, they're going to tell you I have the most fun on the field," he said. "I love this game so much, I love offensive line, being able to impose my will when I want on a defender. And that's something, every time I go on the field it feels like I'm a kid again playing flag football. I have a lot of fun with this game, I have a lot of fun dominating people. That's one of the best parts of the job."
With the Jets and the Giants owning a pair of top-10 selections, Ekwonu, who has family in New York and West Orange, NJ, could be headed to the Northeast. He might also end up being the first player selected in the draft.
"I wouldn't be shocked if I went No. 1 overall," he said. "I feel like that's something I've put the work in for and when that time comes, I would deserve it."
Trevor Penning on Pain
Northern Iowa's Trevor Penning is all about inflicting pain on the field. The Jets got an up-close look at Penning when the coaching staffled the National team at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, AL, last month, and Penning rattled some cages throughout the week.
"I think it's a huge part of my game," he said of playing through the whistle. "You want to make the defender across from you feel it, you want him at the end of the day to be exhausted and he wants to go home, get on the flight and get the hell out of there pretty much."
Penning, who views himself as a tackle who can play guard if necessary, enjoyed the 'Saw' thriller in the lead-up to a game at Illinois State.
"Watched it and it was pretty good, I was like this is kind of a fun movie to watch," he said of the original 'Saw.' "Next day, I was getting ready to get on the bus, it's a five-hour bus ride and … I was like I have an idea, I'm going to watch 'Saw II,' I'm going to download 'Saw III.' So I watched 'Saw II' and 'Saw III.' "
Then Penning followed that and re-watched the 'Saw' trilogy with his mother.
Zion Johnson 'Not Done Yet'
The Jets' first encounter with Boston College's Zion Johnson came during the Senior Bowl in Mobile. He was on the National team coached by the Jets. He has not yet met with the Green & White in Indianapolis for an interview, but thinks he'd be a good fit for the team.
"I feel like I'm a very reliable guy, I'm someone who's played in many different offenses," he said. "I've played in zone scheme, I've played in power schemes, gap schemes. I think I can fit in anywhere, especially at the Jets. They run a wide-zone scheme, which is something I ran at Boston College."
Johnson worked at center for the first time in Mobile, leaning on tips from his teammate Alec Lindstrom, BC's starting center who is also likely to be drafted. Johnson is one of the most fascinating players in the draft. A golfer in high school, he wanted to go to Harvard to study engineering. Four years later and almost 100 pounds heavier, he feels he's scratching the surface.
"My mom was a really big influence for me playing football," he said. "She was always trying to teach me that you want to try as many things in life as you can, don't look back and have regrets. I tried out for football. I was very undersized. I think I really fell in love with the process and the camaraderie with the guys."
He added: "I'm glad I'm here at the Combine. That's something I've watched for a long time and seen guys go through, but I'm not done yet. I have a lot more work I have to do in order to be the player I want to be."
See the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis from all angles.
Slimmer Evan Neal Ready to Follow in Fellow Crimson Tide's Steps
Alabama's Evan Neal will likely be the fourth Alabama offensive lineman selected in the first round in as many years, following in the footsteps of Jonah Williams (No. 11 overall 2019), Jedrick Wills (No. 10 overall 2020) and Alex Leatherwood (No. 17 overall 2021). He's also followed Williams and Leatherwood, beginning his career at guard before moving to left tackle for the Crimson Tide.
"I just learned to be versatile," he said. "Sometimes things aren't going to go your way and you have to do what's best for the team. I feel like it ended up helping me out in the long run. … I was recruited as an offensive tackle and immediately got moved to left guard. I just embraced it. I did my best. I anticipated playing left tackle my sophomore year, but Alex Leatherwood stayed. I moved to the right side, I never played there before. It had its challenges, but I embraced it."
Neal, who won't participate in any drills at the Combine, said weighed 336 pounds before traveling to Indy.
C Tyler Linderbaum Won't Participate in Drills
After sustaining a mid-foot sprain in Iowa's Citrus Bowl loss to Kentucky, Iowa C Tyler Linderbaum won't participate in drills this week. He is hoping to work out at Iowa's pro day.
"I think I can fit in any system," Linderbaum said. "Whatever system I get in, I can help a team out. I don't think I'm limited to what I can do. I'm confident in my performance and what I can do for teams. Whatever team thinks that I can help them out, I'm going to give it my all and compete by butt off."
Iowa is known for developing offensive linemen under Kirk Ferentz, for example, Tristan Wirfs, a first-round pick of the Browns in 2020. He competed against Linderbaum in high school before they became teammates with the Hawkeyes.
"Our high schools are rivals," Linderbaum. "We've always competed against each other whether it be football, baseball, wrestling, track. Obviously I've wrestled him quite a bit, he's beaten me quite a few times. I got one match on him, but he's a great competitor. He's someone who made me better, whether that be high school and going into college. He's someone I can really look up to and has set kind of a standard at the offensive line position."