This is an article from the April 15, 2013 issue
A periodic look at some of the most intriguing draft prospects in sports
First things first: that name. How in the world did Barbara Johnson and Hugh Mingo settle on Barkevious for their third son? Simple. Mom started with the first part of her name, suffixed it with the tail end of cousin Alkevious's, and Dad went along with it.
Barbara's handiwork, says Barkevious, 22, ensured that she "had to work with me every day to make sure I spelled my name right" as a kid. But correct spelling never guaranteed correct pronunciation, and it wasn't until the high school basketball and track star was reborn as one of the best linebacker-end prospects in the country that bar-KEE-vee-us started to roll more smoothly off the tongues of folks in his hometown of West Monroe, La. That and a particular online competition. In April 2009, riding popularity befitting a blue-chip prospect, Barkevious Mingo upset the likes of Iris Macadangdang, Taco Vandervelde and Crystal Metheny—all real people—for the title of Name of the Year in an online poll. When Mingo arrived at LSU that fall, locals were greeting him with cellphone pictures of the dogs they'd named after him.
But by the time of LSU's pro day, on March 27, those most close to him had taken to calling Mingo by his childhood nickname of KeKe. There the 6'4", 237-pound pass rusher kept representatives for all 32 NFL teams mesmerized during a series of speed, agility and field drills. From a set of bleachers far from the action, Johnson looked on—flanked by sons Hugh Jr. (a.k.a. Mookie), Hughtavious (Taye), Malik (Leekie) and LaDarain (Dee)—as KeKe put up eye-popping numbers.
"He's winning in three of the athletic areas that would win a mismatch on the field," said Rams G.M. Les Snead. "We would like to have two of the three. Maybe even just one." But then this: "The thing that teams are trying to figure out is why his playing stats don't match."
Those stats: 60 tackles and 15 sacks (only 4½ as a junior) in 40 games at LSU, just 15 of them starts. Suddenly, Mingo looks less like the second coming of Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul—another late bloomer, who anchored New York's Super Bowl XLVI--winning team—and more like Vernon Gholston, the Jets' sixth overall pick in 2008, who impressed in workouts but had zero career sacks before fizzling out of the league last year. Mingo has been projected to go as high as a top five pick and as low as the early 20s in the April 25 draft, and the deliberation process over his potential speaks volumes about the leaguewide rush to crown America's Next Top Sackmaster.
PASS RUSHERS AND left tackles sit level in importance on the totem pole of NFL positions, just below quarterback, but there's an ironic difference in how the two positions are evaluated coming out of college. The measuring sticks for blind-side tackles are mostly innate—height, wingspan, butt size. Using the bigger is better rule of thumb, the great ones can be separated from the good ones with little more than an eyeball test.
Pass rushers can be evaluated by those measureables, but they also receive statistical credit for their work—sacks, tackles, pressures. And somehow, that extra information makes them more difficult to assess than tackles.
The best of the defensive-end crop tend to get gobbled up early in each draft. Fifty-eight edge rushers (defensive ends and outside linebackers) have appeared on All-Pro teams since 1997, and 35 of those have been first- or second-round picks. Teams are getting bolder. Last year, seven defensive ends were selected in the first 32 picks, a 16-year high; this year, six look to go in the first round.
"Some teams wait years to have an opportunity to be in a spot to pick one of those guys or move up and get one," says Snead, whose Rams have two first-round picks this year. "If you can find that guy who has a combination of athleticism, flat-out speed, body control and desire, you jump all over him."
Snead's checklist descends from the one that Gil Brandt helped to create nearly 50 years ago while he was the Cowboys' VP of player personnel. Along with the requisite athletic traits, the Cowboys looked for things like mental alertness and character. "We were willing to take a flier on a player who could run fast and had all the intangibles," says Brandt, who took road trips to schools such as Tennessee State and Langston University to unearth such hidden talents as Ed (Too Tall) Jones and Thomas (Hollywood) Henderson, the player Mingo most reminds him of. ("Mingo is much further advanced than Henderson was at this point," he points out.)
Today those types of prospects end up on the practice fields of BCS power programs—guys with nontraditional backgrounds who 10 years ago might've been turned into tight ends or who might not have come to the game at all. Guys like KeKe.
Mingo didn't set out to play football. His mother expressly forbade it ("I thought he was going to get hurt," she says), so he ran track at West Monroe High and played basketball. "I thought [by now] I'd be in the NBA, lighting it up, posting somebody up," he says.
But when assistant principal James Remedies watched the brick-chucking, stone-handed, hustling forward thrash about the court, the former hoops coach envisioned a change of scenery. "KeKe was such a fierce competitor," says Remedies, "I couldn't see him being a failure on the football field."
Giving in to pressure from Rebels football players and coaches, and then earning the blessing of his mother (who was convinced by a friend to watch her son play and was suddenly more concerned about his opponents), Mingo reported in the spring of his sophomore year, and equipment managers showed him how to put on his pads while defensive coaches taught him where to line up and what to do at the snap. If there remained any doubt about Mingo's raw physical ability, he quashed it days after football practice started when he helped the track team to a state title with blistering heats in the 4 √ó 400 and the 400 meters, where his times hovered in the 50-second range—staggering times for a 200-pounder.
On the football field that physicality translated into domination. The Rebels changed their defense from a 4--3 to a 3--4 to accommodate the convert, and Mingo was named first-team all-state in his first year of competition.
LSU coach Les Miles was intrigued enough that he tagged along with Mingo to the West Monroe football banquet after his junior season to seal his commitment. "I don't know that I've had more fun," Miles says. "Innocent fun. Laughing. Stupid. Entertaining."
Mingo has held fast to this G-rated personality. He doesn't cuss or drink or smoke. When he's back in West Monroe with nothing to do, he'll finish the home improvement projects that his stepfather, Reggie Williams, a professional contractor, has started around the house—"and do them well," Williams points out. Or he'll go for two-mile training runs with the Rebels' track team.
Mingo's craziest nights are built around episodes of ABC's Scandal or Lifetime original movies. Last year at LSU, Miles's young sons went MIA. The coach called them in a huff, demanding to know where they were, but he struggled to stay mad when he learned they were in KeKe's room, the coach recalls. "All I could say was, 'O.K.... come back in an hour.' "
And so the likes of Gil Brandt tick off Mingo's character box—no small thing in a draft crop that includes Georgia's Alec Ogletree, with his DUI, and Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, with his fake-girlfriend scandal. But what about those college stats? If teams are going to invest tens of millions of dollars, they must be sure that Mingo is, as Miles claims, "the perfect defensive end" for defending the read option. The limited reps can be accounted for by LSU's depth at end the past two years, which compelled player rotations and forced Mingo to split snaps. And, as one league G.M. points out, "The NFL is not always about sacks; it's about affecting the passers. When you watch Mingo get upfield, he's affecting passers all the time. He's always near, always touching pads. He has a presence about him." That presence accounted for 27 QB hits, four forced fumbles and three recoveries at LSU.
Moreover, Miles demanded that his ends set the edge, rather than chase sacks, to lower their risk of getting burned by broken plays. That background will appeal to NFL defensive coordinators looking for athletic and disciplined ends who can stay home and keep the likes of Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III from running wild outside.
As a demonstration, Mingo's speed and lower body strength proved an advantage against read-option-happy Oregon in the 2011 season opener, when the Tigers stymied the Ducks 40--27, with Mingo helping to contain LaMichael James, the Ducks' roadrunner of a tailback.
Critics will counter by pointing to last October's meeting with Texas A&M, when Mingo was mostly held in check by Aggies tackle Luke Joeckel, a potential No. 1 pick, who stands two inches taller and 69 pounds heavier—a closer approximation of what Mingo will face in the NFL.
Mingo's lack of heft was again an issue at his pro day, where he reported four pounds lighter than he had at the combine in February. Scouts who traveled to Baton Rouge hoping to see Mingo bench-press—a test that he had skirted in Indianapolis after tweaking his shoulder—might have gone home disappointed and frustrated if Mingo hadn't breezed through an hour of drill work, hardly breaking a sweat.
Such is scouting—it wouldn't be scouting without a layer of uncertainty. "This is humans evaluating humans," says former Redskins G.M. Charley Casserly, now an NFL Network analyst. "You're flawed on both sides of the equation."
The G.M. who stakes his draft on Mingo will have to know whether he's a better fit at defensive end or linebacker. He will want to have a sense of whether Mingo is done learning, or if he is, as Bennie Logan, another LSU defensive-line prospect, puts it, "basically just cracking the egg on the talent he has."
And that G.M. will have to make peace with the gamble: First-round edge rushers have the clearest path to earning that All-Pro nod, but somebody has to pick the washout.
For that G.M., this is the hope: In the NFL, Barkevious Mingo will mean something more than a laugh.
40-YARD DASH4.58 SEC
3-CONE DRILL6.84 SEC
20-YARD SHUTTLE4.39 SEC
Means to an End
LIKE THE INEXPERIENCED MINGO, THESE ATHLETIC ENDS—EACH EXPECTED TO BE DRAFTED IN THE FIRST THREE ROUNDS—COME FROM UNUSUAL BACKGROUNDS
Ziggy Ansah, BYU6'5", 271 lbs.
Failing to make BYU's hoops squad, the Ghanaian walked on to the football team; he had 62 tackles and 4½ sacks in 2011. Evaluators admire his sweet feet and stout frame, which Ansah calls "a delicate flower." Venus flytrap might be more accurate.
Projection: Top 10
Bjoern Werner, FSU6'3", 266 lbs.
Who'd have thought the 2012 ACC defensive player of the year would be a former exchange student from Berlin? Werner's pass-rushing (23½ career sacks) and run-stuffing (35 TFLs) compare favorably with another do-it-all end: the Rams' Chris Long.
Projection: Mid--first round
Trevardo Williams, UConn6'1", 241 lbs.
The Jamaica native has speed to burn: He was a three-time 100m state finalist in high school, and 24 times won the race to the QB at UConn. But his lack of size has teams considering a move to linebacker.
Projection: Late second or early third round
Margus Hunt, SMU6'8", 277 lbs.
A world junior shot put and discus champion in Estonia, Hunt moved to Dallas for track, then converted to football, where he found a niche blocking kicks and set the NCAA career mark with nine blocked field goals. In time, he could be another Calais Campbell.
Projection: Late first round
To find out where Don Banks projects Mingo to go in his latest mock draft, and to see where Chris Burke ranks Mingo on his updated Big Board, visit SI.com/NFL