“You’re not a dump truck anymore, Apu. You’re a Ferrari. Let’s get it going.”
When the Browns called Baylor defensive tackle Siaki Ika on Friday night to let him know they were going to select him with the No. 98 pick in the NFL Draft, there were many excited people in the draft room. None more so than defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
His smile couldn’t be contained and he dropped the aforementioned analogy on the video call with Ika, whose nickname is Apu.
Apu is keeping it cool 😎 pic.twitter.com/MiCAvvOur7
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) April 29, 2023
“To be honest, I don’t know what it means,” Ika said with a laugh during his introductory news conference Saturday in Berea. “I will do whatever he wants me to do. I will be a Ferrari. I will be a Chevy, if you want me to be. Probably means just growing up, becoming a pro. Definitely going to start looking at myself as a Ferrari now.”
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Fortunately, the 6-foot-3, 335-pounder got clarification from general manager Andrew Berry.
“It means that he no longer has to two-gap,” Berry said, referring to occupying multiple blockers. “He just has to get up the field and disrupt, get off the ball, get off the ball, get off the ball, as opposed to just build a stone wall and hold up the offensive line.”
Disrupting the plans of opposing offenses likely will not be a problem for Ika, as he made a career out of doing so, even after transferring from LSU to Baylor, which is in the pass-happy Big 12.
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During his one full season at LSU, Ika lined up primarily at nose tackle and registered 17 tackles, including 1.5 behind the line of scrimmage. He entered the transfer portal after four games during the COVID-altered 2020 season and chose to attend Baylor.
In 13 games, with 12 starts, during his first year with the Bears, Ika made 25 tackles, including a career-best 6.5 for 36 lost yards. He added a personal-best 4.5 sacks and one pass defended, which helped him garner 2021 Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year honors.
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Despite being schemed for and facing double teams as a senior, Ika made 24 tackles with two behind the line of scrimmage. He was named first-team All-Big 12 by the coaches and media. Additionally, he was a finalist for the Polynesian Player of the Year Award.
“We talked a lot about the front and improving the run defense,” Ika said of his conversations with Schwartz. “I’m a run stopper. It’s something I love to do. Excited to get here and contribute to that.
“I like getting after the quarterback. I’m not the first person people would look at to get after the quarterback, but it’s something I think I can do. It’s something I think I can do here with the coaching and development.”
Ika did not get a lot of game repetitions during his freshman season at LSU, but when he did take the field for the eventual national champion Tigers, he showed the kind of raw power that could translate to the National Football League.
Despite Ika playing in a rotation on the LSU title team and then in a 3-4 scheme after he transferred to Baylor, the Browns saw a difference-maker-in-waiting. That is why they selected him in the third round.
“Honestly, his power just really stood out, even with the LSU film,” Berry said. “Even at a young age, he was a pretty big human being.
“Even though he didn’t necessarily know what he was doing, and he was just kind of part of the rotation, you could see a really big, disruptive presence in the middle of the line of scrimmage. When he was really allowed to attack in the manner that we’re going to ask our defensive line to do, we thought the skills were certainly transferrable.”
Berry, coach Kevin Stefanski and Schwartz are banking on those skills being transferable, as well as compatible with one of their top free agent acquisitions, defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson. That is especially true after the Browns struggled to stop the run throughout the 2022 season.
The Browns ranked 25th against the run, allowing 135 yards a game. They were 30th in rushing touchdowns allowed (22), 26th in rushing first downs against (129) and 24th in rushing first-down percentage (26.4).
“We viewed Siaki as a little bit unique because you don’t usually see those bigger guys that you feel comfortable can play in an over front,” Berry said of Cleveland’s 4-3 system. “We did. We thought that he actually has the mobility to do so, and so that’s really what attracted us to him.
“I don’t think (adding) either Dalvin or Siaki was with a specific goal of just stopping the run. I think Jim will tell you, our emphasis is really on getting after the quarterback and really stopping the run with numbers in the box as opposed to just bigger bodies or size. When you can find guys that you think can be multidimensional players with size, that’s certainly an added bonus.”
During his time at Baylor, Ika weighed 358 pounds. That number was quite different when he participated in the scouting combine in Indianapolis in early March, as the Salt Lake City native was down to 335. He was back up to 347 at his pro day about three weeks later.
According to Berry, Schwartz will take Ika at whatever weight allows him to be physical without sacrificing athleticism in an AFC North that features mobile quarterbacks Lamar Jackson (Baltimore), Joe Burrow (Cincinnati) and Kenny Pickett (Pittsburgh).
“I’ll call it a Schwartzism,” Berry said. “He wants guys to be as big as they possibly can without sacrificing their movement ability. For some guys at defensive tackle, that may be 305, and others, it may be 355. Siaki, he’s really been everywhere from 335 to 355 depending on what the scheme required. For us, we’ll work with him when he gets onsite for what we are going to ask him to do, but he’s played effectively throughout that weight range.”
Ika made a strong impression when the Browns hosted him for one of their 30 pre-draft visits.
“The thing that stood out with him was just his energy,” Berry said. “He’s a very energetic, big personality, and that came across with the coaching staff, came across with his meeting with me, came across with our support staff, and he made a really favorable impression.”
Ika is not only hoping to continue making a favorable impression with the Browns’ decision-makers, but also within his family.
During his news conference alongside receiver Cedric Tillman, who was selected No. 74, Ika looked to the side of the podium several times, where his infant son, Siaki J., was fussing.
“For sure,” Ika said when asked if his son is his “why” for working hard and pursuing a career in football. “Definitely makes it that much more worth it.”