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Mukuamu is a Game Changer

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Notably, Israel Mukuamu both looks and plays the part.

Israel Mukuamu has a lot to offer. He is a player with remarkable versatility and, correspondingly, great value. A uniquely-talented defender, Mukuamu is the type of prospect who can both impact a game and, furthermore, innovate the sport.

The former All-SEC defensive back is a multi-faceted and savvy hybrid, who, in 2019, had one of the best individual performances of the season with three interceptions in South Carolina's upset win over Georgia. Mukuamu is a fascinating prospect at 6'4'', a player who is a proven commodity at one of the toughest positions in the sport and one who is part of the new wave of positionless schematics as well. A rare mix of production and potential, Mukuamu is one of the more exciting athletes in the NFL Draft.

Not only can Mukuamu do it all, he already has.

Humble and grateful, but confident with conviction, Mukuamu has a great profile and perspective to his game. Mukuamu takes pride in his ability to adapt to situational circumstances and line up at different positions on the field depending on where his unique talents can best be used. There isn't a position in the secondary where Mukuamu hasn't played and starred; there isn't a role he can't thrive in. Those multi-faceted options come in addition to the fact that Mukuamu can and has been a traditional shut down corner.

Part of the appeal of Mukuamu isn't just that he can do a number of different things, but that he is eager to. 

"First and foremost, I'm a 6'4'' defensive back, a 6'4'' corner. Number one, you can't teach size. I feel like that just separates me. I have the ability to play press man very well. In zone coverage, I'm very big so I can get my hands on balls that some of the smaller guys can't. Thirdly, I'm versatile. I can line up at corner one play, I can play inside in the slot, I can play safety, I can play in the box," Mukuamu explained. "I feel like that is what differentiates me from other DBs in this class."

Mukuamu credits much of his development to his previous teachers. Former South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp, now an analyst at Georgia, and defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson, now in the same position at Miami, helped Mukuamu reach the next level. Beyond just elite natural skills, he also has an appreciation for the nuances of the positions he plays. The end result has been one of the best defensive backs in country, one able to seamlessly move throughout the secondary.

"I had the ability to get coached by two of the great defensive-minded coaches in college football, Coach T-Rob and Coach Muschamp," Mukuamu shared. "Coach T-Rob was actually my DBs coach and just preached technique, technique, technique. Growing up I always loved the ball in my hands and I played offense. Once I got to high school I switched to defense. The ball skills came from playing offense a lot. Being able to cover came from Coach T-Rob just putting those techniques in our head. That's how I play."

A historic afternoon in Athens a few years ago made Mukuamu a national name. On October 12th, 2019, he had a performance for the ages: three interceptions of Georgia's Jake Fromm, including a pick-six, in a 20-17 double-overtime triumph over the Bulldogs Between the Hedges. Mukuamu's touchdown gave South Carolina a seven-point lead right before the half, providing key momentum in a low-scoring, defensive bout. Mukuamu was named National Player of the Week for his efforts.

Some players feel like they are going to star in the hours leading up a showcase game; Mukuamu didn't even feel well.

"That was a crazy game. I actually woke up sick that game," he recalled. "It was all God that game, just catching three picks and being able to come out with the W."

As if getting in the endzone and recording three turnovers wasn't enough, Mukuamu added eleven total tackles, the second-most for South Carolina, against Georgia. What transpired, his best game on the big stage, was years in the making for Mukuamu. He, literally and figuratively, was all over the field.

"It's just a blessing because your hard work is paying off. When I got my first interception, I just felt like I was in the zone. On Madden they got the x-factor so I was just hot, just playing very well," Mukuamu added. "I felt like our coaches prepared us that week. We came out there thinking if we stopped the run and put the ball in the air then we were going to win the game. We for sure did that. My D-line and my linebackers helped stopped the run, they put the ball in the air and I was able to make plays."

From there, college football was officially introduced.

This is a defender who makes an impression in the box score and in scope and scale alike. Mukuamu stands out, especially when practicing alongside other cornerbacks or paired off against opposing wide receivers. He isn't your traditional cover corner. Players and coaches are sometimes surprised when they first see Mukuamu in person; impressively, his game always matches his hype. Mukuamu has earned his reputation.

Notably, Mukuamu both looks and plays the part.

"It's definitely funny," he smiled. "Usually when I line up on other team's sidelines, they be talking like 'man, this guy is really big'. And then going up against receivers, it's crazy because they see you and they be like 'wow, this guy is really at corner and he really can move, he gets his hands on a lot'. It's a funny feeling, but I just like to go out there and compete and show them that I belong on that island and I'm here to compete."

Now fully healthy after missing a number of games this past season due to injury, Mukuamu is working towards all that lies ahead. That includes his individual chance at the next level and his collective contribution to a legacy that is one of college football's best. A total of 30 South Carolina defensive backs have been drafted to date. The Gamecocks should be part of any conversation regarding "DBU". Mukuamu and teammate Jaycee Horn are ready to add to those discussions.

"I feel like we have always had a good history of DBs," Mukuamu nodded. "Other logos get looked at more than us, but we for sure coming. We're just playing with the cards we're dealt with and leave it all up to God."

The journey Mukuamu is on has been made more special by his relationship with Horn, who is projected as one of the top cornerback prospects for this spring. Going to back to their start of their respective careers at South Carolina, Mukuamu and Horn have worked side-by-side in becoming two of the SEC's premier defensive backs. Progress, for the two stars, has been paralleled; now the NFL comes next. 

As Mukuamu and Horn have realized their dreams, they have done so together. That process continues.

"Playing with a guy like Jaycee was a blessing because we both came in as freshmen in the same class and we told each other from day one we were trying to get to where we at now today," Mukuamu acknowledged. "It was a blessing to feed off his energy, him feeding off mine, and just having someone along the way who is willing to work as hard as you and has the same goals and aspirations."

With the NFL Draft rapidly approaching, Mukuamu continues to grind. His days consist of footwork drills in the morning and strength work in the afternoon. Mukuamu is taking part in a new type of two-a-days. Though the situation has changed, his focus remains the same. A player who may be the new standard at the next level continues to train tirelessly to perfect his craft.

Looking ahead, Mukuamu's upcoming opportunity is one he has long worked towards.

"It's definitely a blessing," he stated. "I've been playing football since I was seven years old. I had dreams of playing in the NFL and every day is getting closer and closer to me getting drafted. I'm probably going to be emotional that day because all of the hard work has paid off. I'm excited to see what is yet to come for me."

Whether a CB1 or a safety with range, what Mukuamu plays is defense. How he plays it what sets him apart.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports