Photo courtesy of Syracuse athletics
Meet Ifeatu Melifonwu, the NFL Draft’s football unicorn. Seemingly mythical and almost dream-like, Melifonwu’s horn is his physical frame.
Not many players enter the process like Melifonwu. Measuring in at an unofficial 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds, the South Grafton, Mass. native is taller than most cornerbacks. However, Melifonwu doesn’t move like someone his size. He moves closer to someone at six feet tall and has similar athletic abilities to one.
Not many people share a physical frame like Ifeatu. His brother, Obi Melifonwu, had a similar frame entering the 2017 NFL Draft as a safety and quickly shot up draft boards. Being a cornerback, Ifeatu faces few comparisons physically.
“It’s easy to just say that when you look at my size and my frame, things like that,” Melifonwu told Fifth Quarter in a phone interview. “But I feel like when you actually watch the tape, you can tell I’m more than just a physical beast. I have technique, I move around well for my size. I don’t move around like I’m 6-3 or stiff.”
In a world of prototypically-sized players, Melifonwu is far from it. He’s an enigma of sorts. He’s puzzling, he’s mysterious, he’s different, but he’s also talented and productive.
Over his career at Syracuse, Melifonwu saw steady production increases, even if he may have immediately hit the ground running.
In 2019, Melifonwu drew the start against Liberty in the Orange’s opening game. With expectations high, the sophomore cornerback quickly made his presence felt.
In the first quarter of a scoreless tie, Liberty’s Stephen Calvary attempted a pass to Kevin Shaa on a slant route. As the pass sailed over the hands of Shaa, it fell right into the breadbasket of Melifonwu for his first career interception.
”I was nervous. That was my first real start,” said Melifonwu. “I had a good fall camp, and we had a deep corner room… It meant a lot to just win that starting job and I knew it wasn’t just about winning the starting job. I had to put in good performances.”
Melinfonwu recalls the interception.
“I remember it was Cover 3, and we played it like bail man,” he said. “It was two receivers out. The No. 2 receiver, I think he ran a slant. The No. 1 receiver ran a glance route … I was kind of over top (the slant route); he overthrew it a little bit and I dove and I got the pick.”
Melifonwu’s interception led to Syracuse’s first score of the game — a 45-yard field goal by Andre Szmyt. Syracuse would end up walking away with a 24-0 shutout to start the year
Melifonwu was often overshadowed by other players, despite strong showings. Flanked by cornerback Trill Williams and playing in front of safety Andre Cisco, Melifonwu was often overlooked.
“I loved playing with those guys, I feel like we just feed off each other,” Melifonwu said about playing in the deep Syracuse defensive backfield. “…When we were all on the field together at the same time, it was a good feeling. I could kind of just tell the difference when those guys were on the field … We all pushed each other to get better.”
Melifonwu finished his college career with three interceptions, but usually had strong showings. In 2020, his Pro Football Focus grade of 78.8 was top among Syracuse defenders.
“I really think it was because Syracuse, my years there, we only had one winning season,” Melifonwu said regarding his underrated status. “I feel like you only really get noticed if you’re making flashy plays or leading the interceptions, like my teammate (Cisco in 2018). He got a lot of attention, but I feel like if you’re on a team like that and you’re just being consistently good, and consistently putting up good numbers and good film, the attention is not really on the team in general.
“I was never really concerned with that,” Melifonwu continued. “In my head, I was thinking when it’s that time, whoever watches the tape and when they really watch it, they’ll know that maybe I should’ve been talked about more.”
Without flashy plays, Melifonwu often draws labels. Labels like “physical beast”, “one-trick pony” will litter his scouting reports.
Here’s the problem with labels like these – they’re hard to break. Once you get a label, good luck breaking it.
Former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney drew “athletic freak” labels and six seasons later, he still can’t shed those labels despite strong showings on the field. More recently, wide receiver DK Metcalf drew those same labels and may struggle to shed them, even with strong showings for the Seattle Seahawks.
Melifonwu, however, is confident in shattering those same labels. The first chance for Melifonwu to prove that he’s not just the label will come in a couple of days. Melifonwu will travel to Mobile, Ala. to participate in the Reese’s Senior Bowl.
“I’m hoping to put out a good performance,” Melifonwu said. “I’m hoping to make a good impression on scouts, and (general managers) and coaches. And just prove that I’m not a ‘physical beast’, and I’m a complete corner that does a lot of good things well — tackles, plays man, plays zone, plays off zone, plays press.”
Despite the toughness of shedding those “physical beast” labels, Melifonwu is confident that his tape speaks for itself.
“Shedding that [label] is really Senior Bowl play,” Melifonwu explained. “And when you really watch the tape, it sheds that characteristic on its own. I do have technique, I don’t move around like I’m 6-3 … I move around like I’m a smaller corner.”
Melifonwu will have a lot to prove in Mobile, including his versatility. Although he’s primarily operated on the boundary as a cornerback, his role has changed. This past season, under the leadership of new defensive coordinator Tony White, he played as a de facto safety at times.
“I was primarily corner, but there were some instances that I was at safety,” Melifonwu explained. “With this new defense, especially this year, there was times that I was still at corner but I was in a safety position. I was still at corner; there were still safeties on the field, but the way formations lined up, I was put in that position a lot.”
The new scheme also helped Melifonwu learn different coverages a little more, diversifying his overall game.
“If you asked me that question a year ago, I would say [I was more comfortable] in press man because with our old defensive coordinator, we played press man all across the board,” Melifonwu explained. “This year, with my new defensive coordinator and my new corners coach [Chip] West, in the field, we were playing off man and in the boundary, we were playing press. So, I’m really comfortable with both.”
For Melifonwu, the sky very well may be the limit. Not many players in this year’s draft have his physical profile, and those who do aren’t playing cornerback. With strong showings at the Senior Bowl and potentially the NFL Combine, Melifonwu can rise up the draft boards. His brother did so in 2017, going in round 2, and Ifeatu might be next.