Few players did more for their draft stock at this year’s Senior Bowl than Syracuse’s Ifeatu Melifonwu. Melifonwu first won the weigh-in process by coming in at 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds. He also possesses 32-inch arms, the type of length that defensive coaches are going to be enamored with.
It’s not just about the physical traits when it comes to Melifonwu. When it came time to hit the field, he showcased his ability to use his vines for arms to disrupt the catch point on what felt like a snap-by-snap basis.
It’s easy to see that Melifonwu is an exciting prospect on tape. An ascending talent that has the size, range, length, and overall athletic ability to develop into a big-time cornerback at the next level, Melfionwu is going to be a hot commodity this April.
I had an opportunity to discuss Melifonwu’s journey with him. From how he puts his game together to what he’s learned by watching his older brother go through the ups and downs of the NFL, we had a long conversation that paints a picture of why he’s one of the most electrifying talents in this class.
JM: You played several sports in high school in addition to football. You also played basketball, ran track, and participated in lacrosse as well. A lot of kids are told to specialize at a young age and I feel like that’s not always the best decision. How did being a multi-sport athlete help you become a better football player?
IM: Competing in different sports helps you become a better athlete in the one sport you eventually decide to focus on. Basketball and lacrosse both involve a lot of footwork. That right there translates to playing cornerback. Track is an obvious one, it does wonders for your speed and conditioning.
I would agree with you. I think you see a lot of specializing in basketball from a young age. I don’t necessarily think that’s the right move for a young kid that’s still figuring things out.
JM: We’re on the same page. You were a big winner at the Senior Bowl just a few weeks ago. What was your experience like in Mobile, Alabama?
IM: I had a great experience. I was a little surprised by how busy we were. We had something to do pretty much every minute of every day. We didn’t really get any free time. I was happy with my week overall. (During) the first practice, I was still getting settled in. I felt a little rusty. I hadn’t played football since our season ended nearly two months ago. I just needed that first practice to settle down.
I improved big time on days two and three. I played well. I feel like I was able to carry that momentum over into the actual game as well. I capped off a good week of practice with a good performance in the game.
JM: I thought you absolutely did that. Who were some of your favorite players to practice against?
IM: I liked going up against the dude from Clemson, Cornell Powell. I didn’t really get a chance to square off with the other Clemson receiver, Amari Rodgers. He played in the slot and I played on the outside. Powell is a good one.
Josh Palmer from Tennessee was another one. Trevon Grimes was fun. Marquez Stevenson from Houston, he has a lot of speed. I enjoyed competing against every single one of those guys. They’re all gonna be good receivers at the next level.
JM: That’s a great list. I know you met with all 32 teams formally, but did any of those team meetings stick out to you in particular?
IM: It’s so hard to remember. It felt like speed dating (laughs). They were 15-minute interviews, one after another for four hours straight. The 32 teams were split up into two days, Monday and Wednesday.
I feel like the 49ers went well. They know my brother [Obi Melifonwu] well. My brother is signed to them right now. It was also my first meeting. That could be why it sticks out in my head.
I feel like all of my meetings went pretty well. I can’t recall any of them going poorly or anything like that. I didn’t leave any meetings and say to myself, “that went bad” (laughs).
The 49ers stick out, probably because of my brother and the fact that they were my first interview of the day. Maybe that’s why I remember them the most.
JM: That makes sense. One of the things that jump out at me about your game on tape is your terrific length. We saw that at the Senior Bowl with your big weigh-in. You’re such a long corner. How do you use that to your advantage at the catch point?
IM: I understand how to use my length to make plays on the ball. My length obviously plays a huge role in that. Having great length means that I can make certain plays on the ball that other cornerbacks can’t. My length also helps me be a reliable, wrap-up tackler as well.
JM: It shows on tape. What are three traits in your opinion that make a successful cornerback?
IM: Footwork, ball-skills, and possessing a short-term memory comes to mind.
JM: We’ve talked a lot about your strengths. I’m curious as to what you think one of your biggest weaknesses is right now and how you’re trying to improve this area of your game?
IM: I need to play with better pad level. Weight distribution is another thing I’m working to improve right now. I’m a taller guy so I need to keep my pad level down. I can distribute my weight a little bit better than I do right now. Both of these things would help me move laterally more efficiently. It’ll also help me have better, quicker feet in press coverage. It helps you get in and out of your breaks.
That’s a great question. Pad level and weight distribution are the two things that come to mind.
JM: That’s a great answer. Is there a scheme on defense that you’re most comfortable playing in?
IM: No, there isn’t. I played for two defensive coordinators at Syracuse and they ran very different systems. I’ve played in a 4-3. We ran a 3-5-5 this past season, which is really like a 4-2-5. I’m not more comfortable with one or the other. I’ve been exposed to it all at Syracuse.
JM: If you could choose the quarterback to be the victim of your first career interception, who would you choose and why?
IM: It would have to be Tom Brady. I’m from Massachusetts. I’m a huge fan of his. I’ve been a Patriots fan my entire life. I’m still a Patriots fan today because that’s where I’m from. It would have to be Tom Brady. He’s the GOAT. If I picked him off, that would be crazy. I’ve been watching him since I was a little kid. Intercepting him would be unreal.
JM: On top of it, you could pay him back for leaving the Patriots.
IM: Right, exactly (laughs).
JM: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from watching your older brother Obi Melifonwu go through the highs and lows of an NFL career?
IM: I’ve learned to not take anything for granted. Enjoy every moment. Understand that it’s a business at the end of the day, but have fun with it. You never know what can happen. Injuries and surgeries can hold you back. I’ll never take it for granted.
JM: The NFL Scouting Combine isn’t going to look the same this year, but you’ll still have a Pro Day to show off your athletic ability. What are some of the drills that you’re looking forward to competing in?
IM: I’m looking forward to all of them really. The on-field work is always fun as a defensive back. I’m obviously looking forward to all of the testing as well. Things like the 40, vertical jump, broad jump, the three-cone. I’m looking forward to showing people that I’m a fluid mover. I’m gonna take that opportunity to prove that I’m not stiff or anything like that. I’m looking forward to all of it, honestly.
JM: That’s terrific. I’ve really appreciated your time today, Ifeatu. This has been great. In closing, what kind of impact is Ifeatu Melifonwu going to make at the next level?
IM: I want to make an impact wherever I can. I would obviously love to be a starter right away but if I’m just a special teams guy at first and play a limited role on defense in subpackages, that’s also fine with me. I just want to make a clear impact either on defense or special teams. I’m gonna play wherever the team needs me to play.