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Scouting Spotlight: Israel Mukuamu Has the Tools

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Written by Zachary Gartin

Twitter: @The_Sideline10

When people start to look at cornerbacks for the draft, length is one of the more common things to look for, and that’s not without reason. Length in a cornerback allows them to be a nuisance at the line of scrimmage and also affect the catch point more effectively, two critical parts to being a good defensive back in the NFL. And if you are looking for length in the draft-eligible 2021 cornerback class, look no further then South Carolina’s Israel Mukuamu.

Mukuamu, who stands at 6’4 and weighs around 205 pounds, is a rising junior and a 2nd Team All-SEC cornerback, per Associated Press. As a true freshman, Mukuamu started two games, one at safety and one at cornerback. Going into his sophomore year at South Carolina, he started his first game (against UNC) at safety before switching back to cornerback for the rest of the year. That isn’t an easy switch, as both positions are very different from footwork, positioning, and responsibility standpoint. But Mukuamu’s length and movement skills for his size made the transition a little bit easier, especially in a defense that prioritized press-man and cover-three principles in 2019.

As he continued to get more and more reps throughout his sophomore year, he grew as a corner, and the numbers show that. He had four interceptions on the season (three in one game), nine pass defenses, and 59 total tackles. He is a high upside prospect that could work himself into the conversation as an early day two prospect, and here is why.

A term you will often hear for him is length, and it’s obvious why. At 6’4”, his length and height are elite for the position, and he uses it well. His ability to be a nuisance at the line of scrimmage is one of my favorite things about him.

This clip has Mukuamu in press at the top of the screen, and he does a great job of being patient but physical at the line of scrimmage and forcing the wide receiver to the sideline where he has no room to operate. His length allows him to use his hands more often because he still has plenty of space to recover if he misses his jab. These types of reps are all over his film, no matter the opponent.

His length also allows him to make plays on the ball that others probably couldn’t. Before we get started on this clip, this is not his best coverage rep. Good patience to deal with the first move, but then gets beat and tagged with a defensive holding call. But the play on the ball is fantastic. Playing from a trailing position, he leaps up and attacks the ball with ease, tipping it out of play using one hand.

Throughout Mukuamu’s film, you consistently see him show excellent ball skills and the ability to react quickly to a ball and make a play. He did this against Georgia a couple of times. In this play, Fromm gets pressured and tries to throw the hitch late. Mukuamu sees this and attacks the inside hip of the wide receiver to cut this pass off and make a great grab for the touchdown.

Mukuamu had Fromm’s number in this game, and this is his second of three picks of the now Buffalo Bills quarterback. He has a good rep on press here, showing patience and staying on top of the route. There might have been a push-off at the top of the route, but the break creates separation that shouldn’t be there. However, Mukuamu gets back to balance quickly and shows high awareness to reach for this interception. Part of being a good cornerback is punishing the mistakes of the offensive players, which Mukuamu does a great job of doing.

Due to his length, Mukuamu is naturally a high-waisted and tall player, which can hurt him at times when coming out of breaks or dealing with great route runners. In the clip below, Mukuamu gets hit with a double move and struggles to flip his hips quickly enough to minimize the damage. It is something that happens to bigger corners, especially ones that don’t have the most experience in off-coverage.

Mukuamu’s biggest struggles come with the more nuanced parts of the cornerback position. He lacks experience, only playing one full season at cornerback in college after transitioning there from safety—his footwork, eyes, and understanding of positioning all show this.

The biggest problem in the rep below (Mukuamu is at the top of the screen) is his eyes. If you watch Mukuamu’s head, he peaks back after the initial contact he creates and puts himself in a trail position. At that point, he is losing. But once the ball is in the air, Mukuamu prioritizes that versus the wide receiver and gives up a big gain. If he keeps his eyes on the receiver and fights through the Clemson players’ hands, Mukuamu could have forced an incompletion. Instead, it ends up as a big gain.

That Clemson game was the last game of the year, and while he showed growth throughout the season (especially with his patience in press coverage), he exhibited some of the same problems he had in his first game at cornerback in 2019. Here Mukuamu is against DeVonta Smith, a talented wide receiver. He shows great patience at the line of scrimmage, but after they are in the route Mukuamu peaks his head back to find the ball. This is a bad move on a red zone fade for two reasons. It slows the cornerback down, and it causes the cornerback to lose sight of the receivers’ hands. On routes like this, the corner should key the receivers’ hands and punch his hand between them to get the ball out. Mukuamu doesn’t and almost gives up the touchdown to DeVonta Smith.

All this brings me to my final thoughts on Israel Mukuamu. He is raw, really raw. He struggles with most of the technical and fundamental aspects of the position, and wide receivers at the NFL level will exploit that. But Mukuamu does have all the tools he needs to be good at the position. The length, strength, ball skills, and surprising movement ability he possesses make him so intriguing to watch. As I like to put it, Mukuamu’s toolbox is full of everything he will ever need, but he is still learning how to use the first couple of tools.

Do I think he can do get a handle on the intricacies of cornerback? Yes, I do. He grew a lot as the 2019 season went along and that’s a good indicator that he is coachable and smart. At the beginning of the season, he was too aggressive in press coverage and would lunge all too often, but as the season progressed, he became much more patient and better with his hand placement. The next step for him is too continually focus on the technical facets of his game and continue to grow in this upcoming SEC schedule.

Mukuamu has everything he needs to be a really good NFL player in the right system. He isn’t the greatest athlete, so going man-to-man with no safety help on a consistent basis could hurt him in the NFL, but a role on a cover-2 or cover-3 focused team (*cough cough* Seattle?) would make the most sense for Mukuamu. His build and athleticism remind me of players like Brandon Browner, Sean Smith, and even Richard Sherman. Sherman is obviously a very bold prediction, but if Mukuamu reaches the upper levels of his potential, I think he can be one of the most disruptive players in the NFL thanks to his length and ability to make plays on the ball. However, Israel Mukuamu has a lot of learning to do before he gets there.

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