Stephon Gilmore, Jonathan Joseph, Dunta Robinson, and Rick Sanford. That's a distinguished list, as those are the only defensive backs who have gone on to become first-round picks that attended the University of South Carolina. Gamecock defensive backs have been a starved position in the NFL draft as the program hasn’t had a player at the position drafted inside of the top 100 selections since D.J. Swearinger during the 2013 draft cycle.
Now with two that could possibly make a serious run at challenging that feat, South Carolina has arguably the most potent cornerback tandem in the country in Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu. One towering over the other, Mukuamu, a native of the Republic of Congo, was a pleasant surprise for the team’s secondary during the 2019 season—his breakout game came in a thrilling upset victory over Georgia in overtime. The star of the game, he finished with three interceptions and one that included a go-ahead pick-six as well as a game-turning turnover to help get his team the ball back in order to seal the victory.
When asking scouts about Mukuamu and his future projection, the most common response was late Day 2 to early Day 3 as his draft range. At 6-foot-4, he’s a bit of an anomaly at the position and will be an outlier in many categories.
This week, I spent some time with the Gamecocks junior defensive back ahead of a pivotal season opening matchup against Tennessee. We discussed his upbringing in Charlotte, North Carolina prior to moving to Louisiana, the challenges of being a taller player at the position, his big day against Georgia last season, and what he’s looking forward to the most this season.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Question: Let’s start all the way at the beginning. Being in a household with three other brothers. I know things got really competitive. Tell me about those times with your siblings.
Mukuamu: Growing up, me and my brothers were always competitive. Whether it was racing outside or playing video games, it was just a competitive household, and we just hold each other accountable.
Q: How do you get your start in football?
M: Me and my older brothers used to play football in the neighborhood and play against each other like two-on-two or true backyard football. He saw that we were just beating every kid in the neighborhood, so one day he said we’re going to go to a local recreation team. From there, I went to a team called Northeast Dolphins. It’s in Charlotte, NC. From there, I just started playing football and loved it ever since.
Q: I read a story where you intercepted a pass during your first recreation league game. How’d that story end?
M: Oh yeah. It was pretty cool. They had me at safety and then the QB just threw it up. I just ran and caught it. I almost ran it back, but I got tackled from behind, so that was pretty cool.
Q: Correct me if I’m wrong. Your dad is heavily into judo, right? Tell me about that.
M: My dad is originally from Africa. The Republic of Congo. He just grew up on it and he actually was a world champion in judo at one point back at home. He always shows us his pictures and tells us a lot of stories about that.
Q: You originally started at Berkeley High School, but then transferred. What were some of the things that you learned while there?
M: I actually moved to Berkeley the summer going into my ninth-grade year. My DB coach there gave me an opportunity to start as a freshman. I was playing off of talent and being a ball hawk. I caught four interceptions my first year. From there, I just took off.
Q: You experienced some crossroads with your dad moving to Louisiana and the family decided to stay back instead. How were you able to fight through that type of adversity and still come out of that situation strong.
M: The summer going into my junior year, my dad got a job in Louisiana working for the military. He wanted me and the family to move down there, but my recruiting process already started up, so I wanted to play out my junior year because I already had a couple offers. That’s why I wanted to stay and play there and then finish off my final year in Louisiana.
Q: South Carolina was your very first scholarship offer, but you were originally a Florida state commit. What made you switch?
M: Since my sophomore year, I always visited South Carolina. I’ve been comfortable with T-Ro b(defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator) and coach Muschamp throughout the recruiting process, but when I moved to Louisiana, it kind of went missing a little bit. The summer going into my senior year, they reached out to me, telling me that they wanted me to be a part of South Carolina. They recruited me through my whole senior year and then when I found out coach Jimbo (Fisher) left Florida State, then it was the right decision for me. I feel like everything happens for a reason. That’s the reason that I’m here now.
Q: You got to South Carolina and you were an instant hit as a freshman. You received a lot of playing time, but you went back and forth between safety and corner. After spending a majority of your high school career at safety, what was that transition like, and what has that experience taught you now that you play corner?
M: In high school, it was kind of both because my freshman and sophomore years, I played corner. The experiences are really eye-opening because at safety, you are the last line of defense and you are looking over everybody and helping out everybody. At corner, you’re just on an island by yourself and it really comes down to if you’re a competitor or not. Safety is looking out for your brother and making sure that he knows stuff. It’s two different positions, but I definitely can play both.
Q: Being that you’re a 6-foot-4 corner, that’s something that’s very rare at the position. Most are labeled tight-hipped and they end up having to move to safety. Go in depth about some of the challenges that you face being a corner that’s that tall.
M: Really. Sometimes you can get a bit lazy with bending down, but that’s what comes with it. When you’re bigger, it’s just harder to bend, but for me, one thing that I say that I’m different for is that I can really move at 6-foot-4. A lot of people try to frame me as a safety. ‘Oh, he’s big’, so they automatically project me as a safety, but I feel like if you really watch my tape and you come out and actually watch me in person, you’ll see that I’m not your average 6-foot-4 guy because I move way better than an average guy that size.
Q: You guys play a good mixture of Cover 3 where you turn your back to the sideline, but also press-man as well, but which one do you enjoy more.
M: Definitely man-to-man. Being able to compete. I’m a competitor so I like to show that me vs. you, I want to win and I don’t really like giving up catches because in Cover 3, you give up deep out routes and comebacks. If people that don’t really know football, they think I’m giving up all of these passes, but if you know football then you know that comes with the game. I definitely like to be man-on-man and if I get beat, then that’s on me.
Q: When you’re describing Israel Mukuamu as a player, what would you say are your biggest strengths and weaknesses or something that you want to add to your game in the future?
M: My biggest strength is my football I.Q. Just knowing the game and then one of my weaknesses is sometimes being inconsistent with coming off of the line of scrimmage. Using my hands more than my feet is a big one.
Q: Of course we have to talk about the Georgia game when you caught those three interceptions. What was the feeling like to have such a successful day like that and to get the upset victory?
M: It was surreal. That definitely was all God. I don’t know, something was different that game. The crazy thing was, I woke up sick that day. My coaches put me in positions to make the plays and thank God I came down with all of those.
The Scouts Eye View
Size: 6-foot-4, 205, Junior
Positives (+): Mukuamu possesses outrageously long arms that he uses frequently to his advantage.. He isn’t shy about getting into the face of wide receivers and challenging them at the line. Despite his freedom with playing press-man, he displayed lots of patience with stabbing his hands into the frame of matchups. The effects of his frame are felt during the infant stages of reps, but also when the ball arrives at catch points as his limbs make it difficult to squeeze passes into windows when his body is in proper positions to battle for the ball.
Despite not having the bulkiest frame, he isn’t afraid to put his face in the mix of activity. Mukuamu is heavily active in the running game. While he won’t necessarily go out of his way in order to jostle tacklers down that aren’t within his immediate areas, he’s consistent with attacking the ones that are in his immediate parameters. He brings plenty of physicality to the table as a perimeter setter most notably against quick perimeter throws behind the line of scrimmage. He remains disciplined and doesn’t let ball carriers reach his outside shoulder to run along the sideline.
Playing in a scheme that mixed up the coverage and pre-snap alignment of the cornerbacks frequently, he was able to gain experience in press-man, off-man, and zone coverage concepts. Due to his frame, he will automatically be pegged as being best suited in a Cover 3 scheme. Primarily aligned as the field corner, he has the capabilities of thriving in either, but he projects best in a scheme that allows him to zone turn and keep things in his initial sightline. His inconsistent short area quickness and average change of direction skills make playing man coverage consistently challenging.
Negatives (–): Being that he’s such a long corner prospect with a gangly frame, his feet don’t always marry up with his willingness to get hands on receivers at the line. Instead of keeping his base underneath of him, it will immediately become disconnected and throw off his technique that he’s trying to accomplish. This results in him latching onto wideouts to avoid any further missteps.
While he remains ultra-aggressive at the line of scrimmage, he doesn’t understand how to land in his spots and then let go afterwards. When feeling threatened or fear of being out of position, he immediately grabs in order to get his feet and body back into position. When landing his hands in desired locations, he will then hang on for dear life to ensure that wideouts don’t unravel from his grasp. This habit may lead to him being a penalty magnet if not corrected.
On occasion, he’s left swiping at air and coming up empty because of his aggressive nature of wanting to land initial jam attempts on targets. Mukuamu has a tendency to jam with his inside hand/arm, which results in leaving his inside hip open hip open for routes back inside underneath. Patient route runners have been able to manipulate and avoid his long levers by simply waiting for him to quickly reveal his plan of attack.
- Feb 07, 2023
- Feb 07, 2023