For years, positional size standards have been in place, in an unofficial capacity. One such standard has long been established at the cornerback position, where cornerbacks who are too small might not have the range to cover, and cornerbacks who are too large may lack the mobility necessary to flourish at the professional level. South Carolina CB and 2021 Draft prospect Israel Mukuamu can challenge this standard and provide the NFL with a unique archetype to study.
South Carolina CB Israel Mukuamu a unique draft prospect
I like to seek out NFL Draft prospects with unique characteristics that set them apart from the rest of the pack. Every prospect is different from the next, but some have traits that truly put them into a class of their own. For Zyon McCollum, it’s his athleticism and ball production. For Drew Himmelman, it’s his size and consistency. And for Joseph Ossai, it’s his versatility and pass-rushing upside.
Mukuamu has frequently been mentioned in the lead-up to the 2020 season as one of the better cornerbacks and draft hopefuls in the nation, but what is it about him specifically that makes him such an intriguing prospect? In a word, his size.
Cornerback prospects can range anywhere from 5-foot-8 to 6-foot-3, in terms of height, but the vast majority of players fall within the 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-1 range. Once you get to 5-foot-8 on the low side, or 6-foot-3 on the high side, you start to see the statistical outliers at the position.
The 2021 cornerback class is one of the taller classes in recent memory, and South Carolina CB Israel Mukuamu tops the group; he’s an outlier in every sense of the word. Mukuamu stands somewhere between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-4, and he has a filled-out frame, weighing in at 205 pounds. He’s about as long as you’d expect a 6-foot-4 cornerback to be: Pretty freaking long.
Mukuamu’s size lays the groundwork for his success, but he has a toolbox with many other enticing traits to take into account.
Film study on Israel Mukuamu
In 2019, Mukuamu used his length to put together an excellent ball production resume, racking up four interceptions and nine pass deflections in 12 games. Three of his picks came against Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm, but his deflections were spread fairly evenly throughout the season, speaking to his consistent impact and presence as a coverage defender.
Mukuamu’s consistency is derived not just from his physical profile, but from an all-encompassing skill set which allows him to thrive in different situations. Here are a few of his hallmark traits.
Recognition and Processing
Here’s a play from Mukuamu’s standout performance against Georgia — a pick-six, in fact — where Mukuamu shows that he has not only the length to make an impact, but also the recognition skills in coverage and the explosive short-area burst to cover ground and close gaps between him and the receiver.
At 6'4, Israel Mukuamu is one of the more lengthy corners I've seen.
Had a GAME vs UGA, finishing w 3 INT's and leading South Carolina to a big win.
Would like to see him improve his tackling and question how fluid he is at his size but intriguing none the less. pic.twitter.com/o2dY096cED
— 𝙅.𝙍. (@JRDrafts) May 1, 2020
Mukuamu shifts direction after starting upfield and gets back in time to make the play on the ball. His long speed leaves something to be desired after he makes the interception, but he plays fast for his size and isn’t afraid to be disruptive at the catch point.
Here’s another play, this time in the backfield, where Mukuamu shows off his impressive quick processing skills as a cornerback. Mukuamu immediately recognizes the running back in motion and starts to position himself just before the snap. He times his advance to perfection and takes a good angle to the ball, careful not to let the blocker behind him negate his attack.
Unreal play recognition from Israel Mukuamu.
Starts on the top-left of your screen, South Carolina #24. Reads the play set-up, darts in the backfield, forces the incompletion and almost a fumble.
South Carolina has arguably the best CB duo in the nation. pic.twitter.com/4KcE6z4Zec
— Matt Valdovinos (@MVScouting) June 10, 2020
Mukuamu’s instincts pop on the screen, and it’s this part of his game that could provide him exciting positional versatility at the next level.
Technique and Fluidity
Of course, it’s not just being opportunistic that matters for cornerbacks, but also how they start the play because the start of a play can often determine whether a cornerback wins or loses. Given his size and length, Mukuamu has a lot of potential as a press cornerback and watching him move, he has more than enough fluidity and balance to get by for his size.
Here, he matches up with Henry Ruggs III, one of the most explosive wide receivers in the 2020 NFL Draft, and matches him with his long strides, flipping his hips repeatedly, with plenty of ease.
Israel Mukuamu, 6'3"/205lbs. Ideal press corner profile with some of the usual press issues on underneath routes. But this rep vs 1st rounder Henry Ruggs shows the upside. pic.twitter.com/drzO5QS5M9
— Jared Stanger (@JaredStanger) July 5, 2020
Here’s another rep of Mukuamu against Ruggs — up at the top of the screen. Sometimes, when bigger cornerbacks go against quicker receivers, they can get their feet tied up trying to catch up after the initial jolt, and end up losing ground. But Mukuamu is very calm and collected off the line, while at the same time maintaining the pace necessary to uphold his leverage.
I'd expect Israel to look better on go routes than sits/slants, but it's still good to see this rep vs someone as fast as Ruggs. Mukuamu stays on top the whole way. pic.twitter.com/8vyw0J2QRc
— Jared Stanger (@JaredStanger) July 5, 2020
Mukuamu again shows hip fluidity and transitions from mirroring to pursuit very cleanly. Also, it’s worth noting that while Mukuamu isn’t a speed demon, his speed is not a liability, as it has been for other taller cornerbacks.
We mentioned this earlier, but it’s important to reiterate: Mukuamu can mess things up for an offense. You’ve already seen his pick-six, but below, you can see his other two interceptions against Georgia, starting at the 0:22 mark of the clip.
On his second interception, Mukuamu capitalizes on miscommunication between Fromm and his receiver and contorts his body to make a diving catch. Players who have the focus to convert in off-balance situations like these are in short supply, and Mukuamu has that ability.
The third interception, at the 0:43 mark, showcases a similar focus from Mukuamu. This time, Fromm is throwing to a receiver in the slot, but the ball bounces off of the receiver’s hands and is deflected into the air. Mukuamu was originally coming up behind the receiver, preparing to contribute to a tackle, but with the ball in the air, he has to adjust to the new path of the ball on a moment’s notice, and he manages to hone in on the ball and make the interception. This pick happened in overtime, emphasizing Mukuamu’s ability in clutch situations.
Israel Mukuamu's 3 interceptions of Jake Fromm below.
Credit Mukuamu for making a great play on the ball and having the ability to run back the first interception for a touchdown but the play doesn't happen without Javon Kinlaw pressuring Fromm. pic.twitter.com/OcD0M4jNu9
— SEC Mike (@MichaelWBratton) April 11, 2020
As a 2021 Draft prospect, Mukuamu will always be in a class of his own due to his size, but in reality, that’s not the only thing he brings to the table. Mukuamu is an instinctive, physical defender, and while he can work on cleaning up his hands at the line, he has the athletic foundation and the mental acuity necessary to be a standout defender at the NFL level.
Ian Cummings is an NFL draft analyst at Pro Football Network. You can find him on twitter @ian_cummings_9.