* 2019 All-SEC Second Team
* 2019 National Defensive Player of the Week (Georgia)
* 2019 SEC Fall Academic Honor Roll
* 2018-19 SEC First-Year Academic Honor Roll
Talented, lanky junior defensive back who earned second-team All-SEC honors from the Associated Press in 2019... is a returning starter at cornerback, but could also see time at safety... possesses rare height and wingspan for a corner... has made 14-consecutive starts... has five career interceptions... named by several media outlets as a possible first round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft... named to the Lott IMPACT Trophy preseason watch list.
Started all 12 games, the opener at safety, then the next 11 at cornerback... tabbed second-team All-SEC by the Associated Press and third-team by Phil Steele... finished fifth on the team with 59 tackles... his four interceptions led the team and tied for second in the SEC... it was the most picks for a Gamecock in a season since Skai Moore had four in 2015... ranked fifth in the SEC with 1.08 passes defended, collecting 13 in 12 games... had the best game of his career in the upset win at Georgia... logged a career-high 11 tackles and intercepted Jake Fromm three times, returning one 53 yards for a score... Fromm had entered the game without an INT on the season... became the first Gamecock to record three picks in a game since Patrick Hinton vs. NC State in 1988 and was one of only four players in the country with three picks in a game in 2019... recognized as the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week, the Chuck Bednarik Award National Player of the Week, the Bronko Nagurski Trophy National Defensive Player of the Week, the College SportsMadness.com SEC and National Defensive Player of the Week, and the SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts... also had an interception against Charleston Southern... had eight tackles versus Alabama... named to the SEC Fall Academic Honor Roll.
True freshman who enrolled at Carolina in January... played in all 13 games, making two starts... credited with 17 tackles including 2.0 tackle for loss... logged one interception, one PBU and a forced fumble... tallied his first three tackles versus Georgia... intercepted a pass against Chattanooga... had five tackles, 1.0 tackle for loss, a forced fumble and a pass breakup against Akron in his first career start... the start came at safety after primarily playing cornerback throughout the year... saw extensive action at Clemson and made three tackles... matched his high with five stops as a starter at cornerback in the Belk Bowl vs. Virginia... named to the First-Year SEC Academic Honor Roll.
Graduated from Parkway High School in Bossier City, La., in December 2017... the Panthers posted a 5-6 mark in his senior season... selected to the Offense Defense All-American Bowl... coached by Neil May... originally from Moncks Corner, S.C. but moved to Louisiana prior to his senior year... logged 69 tackles in help the Berkeley Stags go 9-3 in 2016, after they finished 3-7 in 2015... Rivals ranked him as the 19th-best player in the state of Louisiana and the 35th-best safety in the country... named to the PrepStar All-Southeast Region team.
Israel S. Mukuamu was born Nov. 28, 1999... is in the sport and entertainment management program.
Israel Mukuamu had to make a choice.
He wasn’t even yet a junior at Berkeley High School in Moncks Corner, but he faced a decision that was going to change the course of his future. It meant living apart from his dad, Muana “Charles” Mukuamu, for a year, while looking to solidify his football future.
“It was pretty hard because I got my first offer that summer going into my junior year,” Mukuamu said. “So I felt like if we were to move right then and there, it was going to kind of mess things up.”
When work took Charles Mukuamu to Louisiana, the family stayed behind in South Carolina. An older brother filled in some of their father’s responsibilities until their situation was on more stable ground and the family could reunite.
Israel Mukuamu played a final season at Berkeley before moving to Louisiana his senior year of high school. Plans to play college football at Florida State were upended. Eventually he returned to the Palmetto State to play for Will Muschamp, the man who extended his first scholarship offer.
Now a South Carolina Gamecock, he’s generating NFL Draft buzz and looking forward to a third year in Columbia. He’s grown a lot in the past two years, faced the rigors of college football on the field and off. But he’s always had a support system of family and coaches, and that helped carry him through time with a family split by almost 900 miles of distance.
“It was tough on myself to leave my family behind,” Charles Mukuamu said. “But I could not resist because of the pressure I received from their love of football. It was impossible for me to resist. I didn’t want to mess up the gift from God.
“It was a sacrifice I’m supposed to do for them to succeed.”
A SET OF BROTHERS AND A FAMILY APART
The word Charles Mukuamu used to describe his second-youngest son is one not often applied to younger kids: focused.
“Israel can stay in the room, play with his toys by himself,” Charles Mukuamu said. “He can stay longer. He’s got this sense of concentration.”
His older brother Joseph painted him as a child both calm and competitive. That’s something Israel still possesses, still applies to his craft on the football field.
And he could run — his father remembers a trip to the doctor’s office when two of his sons raced while in the waiting room. Israel took off, lapping Joseph. Combine that with a doctor’s prediction that Israel would reach 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5 in height, and he had an athletic future. Charles Mukuamu was a high-end judo competitor, but his four boys never got into the sport. After he immigrated from the Congo, his sons — Sergio, Joseph, Israel and Emanuel — grew up in the Charlotte area. It was Sergio, the oldest by more than half a decade, who first found his way to football.
“At first I started playing football with the kids in the neighborhood,” Sergio Mukuamu said, “I would always run plays with Israel and Joseph and Emmanuel. I’d really run plays with them, and have them play against older kids outside, and they would excel.”
The three younger brothers signed up for recreation league together, brothers spread across a few age groups. Sergio helped guide them, sharing the joy of a road trip back from a win or getting on them after a loss. Israel, 7, was already different, intercepting a pass his first game and playing some running back before he fully sprouted up in eighth grade. Israel played just about every position but offensive line at one point or another, Joseph said.
Sergio played football at Garinger High School in Charlotte at the same time father worked his way toward the American dream. While he and his wife raised his boys, Charles Mukuamu, who came to the United States in 1995, worked as a forklift driver. But he was also going to school, first to study electrical engineering and then information technology. Completing that degree led him to work for the Department of Defense, a job that brought the Mukuamu family to the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Joseph Mukuamu played football at Berkeley High School, but it was Israel who really blossomed there. With parents not involved in the thick of the sport, Sergio gave his brothers a level of guidance and even some early coaching he’d not had.
“I didn’t have a big brother,” Sergio Mukuamu said. “I didn’t have what Israel has, somebody to teach me about camps — you need to go here, you need to go there, you need to meet with coaches. I didn’t have that, so lucky enough for him for Israel he had me and he has somebody that would actually drive him everywhere for camps.”
His father jokingly calls Sergio “the coach of the family,” sacrificing to pass on the gift of football to his brothers. He said he felt God chose his older sons to help their younger brothers along, dedicating their time and sometimes money toward the effort. In the summer before Israel’s junior year in high school, all that work paid off. South Carolina football coach Will Muschamp came in with the first scholarship offer.
But with what was coming, that potential suddenly seemed fragile. Charles Mukuamu’s job called for him to move to Louisiana. He was the patriarch of a family with four boys, and it seemed a bit strange that a sport he didn’t have too much of a sense for was going to create such an issue.
“Seeing me growing up and playing football, he started getting into it more just learning about it and he really loves the game of football actually. He doesn’t really understand it all the way, but he has a good understanding of the game,” Israel Mukuamu said.
Much of his dad’s interest in football came in recent years. At the time, before the 2016 season, Sergio led the way in trying to convince Charles of the plan.
The logic was simple: Leaving Berkeley would mean hitting the reset button. Israel would have to meet new coaches while in Louisiana, get his feet wet with a new program and figure out his role in a rather crucial year for recruiting.
“I had to explain it to my dad like, ‘Listen, Israel is at a pivotal year,’” Sergio Mukuamu said. “This is his junior year. He could really take off, his recruiting could really take off. “If he does what he needs to do this year, it’s OK to move to another state because he has offers. His name will carry weight.”
The pitch was still tough. It’s only natural a father wants his family there with him, especially as he figured out life in a new place. Out on his own in Louisiana, it wasn’t easy.
“I struggled by myself because I don’t know how to cook,” Charles Mukuamu said. “I don’t know how to do that. That’s where I appreciate all the work my wife is doing for me. I was miserable over there, but that’s the price I’m supposed to pay.”
The family considered leaving behind only Israel and Sergio, 25 at the time, but ultimately the plan was for only Charles to go. He can laugh about it now, saying he didn’t have a choice. It was five against one.
Life back in Berkeley County asked plenty of the Mukuamu family. Sergio filled the role of man of the house, with Joseph helping guide them as well. Betty Mukuamu worked full-time as a certified nursing assistant, balancing two sons in high school and helping her other two sons as well.
“My mom has been amazing,” Sergio Mukuamu said. “She basically had to take care of the house. She has four boys, going to work, cooking for us, making sure everybody’s well, missing her husband but still working hard — holding it down while my dad is gone.”
Sergio recalled having to keep his brothers on the ball and up to par in school. It required a wide-ranging support system, which included English teacher Meredith Strmac.
“She would make sure that they did all their homework,” Sergio Mukuamu said. “She would make sure that she spoke to the teachers if they needed help with anything. ... So I had major help. “I had eyes on them in school when I wasn’t there, so that teacher was really like a second mom.” And the plan paid off.
By the end of Israel’s junior season at Berkeley, he’d added three more college scholarship offers, securing that momentum. He’d kept his grades up, and the family was set to reunite in Louisiana at the semester break. An offer was made for him to live with a teacher and finish out his education at Berkeley, but after much prayer, that push fell on deaf ears. The family wanted to be back together.
“We were used to growing up in the household with both our parents at home,” Joseph Mukuamu said. “So seeing our dad just kind of make the way already and go ahead and leave and move on to Louisiana, it was pretty tough. “God had his plans, so we just went along with it.” Mal Lawyer remembers the moment in 2014 well.
The former Clemson wide receiver had just made the switch from coaching his former position to coaching on the other side of the ball, after then-Berkeley head coach Jeff Cruce granted his request to work with the defensive backs. Then Lawyer got a rising pupil to mold, Israel Mukuamu fresh off the move from Charlotte, ready to start his freshman year of high school.
“Him and his brother Sergio came by the school,” Lawyer said. “Then when I saw him. It was like, oh my God!”
He was already 6-foot-3, even lankier than he is now. But talk to the coaches who worked with him then, and they remember a young player eager to learn and eager to throw his all into things.
“Incredible work ethic,” Cruce said. “Was very quiet, but just anything you told him, he just soaked it up.”
Cruce saw a certain fire in the young player. Years earlier as a grad assistant, he’d watched Clemson defensive back Donnell Woolford snap at an older player who told the then-freshman to take it easy. Woolford didn’t and ended up with a 10-year NFL career. It was that sort of focus Cruce saw in Israel.
Sergio Mukuamu thought his younger brother was destined to play wide receiver, at least until a moment in that first Berkeley practice.
“He looked at the wide receiver line. He was like, ‘Man, I’m not gonna get any playing time time,’” Sergio Mukuamu said. “Like this wide receiver line is long. It was like, ‘OK, let me just go to corner, looking at the guys over here, like I just beat them out.’”
He beat enough out to start his first high school game and pick off a pass, on his way to leading the team in interceptions that season. Lawyer tested his tall charge’s mettle as the team came down the stretch.
“I benched him the game before (the playoffs) just to humble him,” Lawyer said. “I wanted to see what kind of character he had. I wanted to see what kind of player he was if he was to get benched. Would he be on the sideline pouting?”
He roared back, dominated in the playoffs. Lawyer recalled hard tackles and at least one interception against Dreher. The team advanced to the state quarterfinals.
Even then, Cruce was telling Mukuamu that if he kept on his grades and put in the effort, he’d be a college prospect. That offseason, Lawyer also connected Mukuamu to the defensive back coach at Elite Position Training in the Upstate, who augmented his growth at the position.
He continued to grow, attacking the weight room. The Stags struggled the next high school season, which brought a coaching change. Randy Robinson came to Berkeley from Daniel High School. The new coach was impressed to see his new star.
“I couldn’t believe that kid wasn’t already graduated,” Robinson said.
At Robinson’s first Berkeley practice in 2016, Israel Mukuamu jumped into the thick of tackling drills. Robinson could only think: This kid’s not scared. Most players with that taller, willowy build shy from contact. Mukuamu embraced it.
Even at a height where many saw him as a safety, Robinson kept him at corner. There had been some thought to move him to the middle of the field, just so offenses would be able to avoid him less. Israel’s brothers played a key role around the team. Emanuel Mukuamu was the ball boy early in his brother’s career. Robinson remembers Sergio leading things in that one year when the family was apart.
“His older brother really stepped up and was able to take him to some of the (college) visits,” Robinson said, “so he can make a good, informed decision as far as the recruiting.”
Initially, Florida State was Israel Mukuamu’s choice, coming off five years of 10 or more wins. But the 2017 season was a down one and FSU coach Jimbo Fisher moved on. The plans to go there went “up in smoke,” in Robinson’s words.
Mukuamu played his senior season at Parkway High School in Bossier City, Louisiana. He dissolved his pledge to Florida State. And there was South Carolina, the first offer, waiting for Mukuamu to land and come home. He committed to the Gamecocks on Dec. 9, 2017.
Charles Mukuamu knew the family wasn’t going to make that long drive up from Louisiana for games, so he set about looking for a job back in the Palmetto State. Through his son’s high school career, Charles Mukuamu also found a moment to leverage football for the purpose of education. A man who had bettered his situation with a degree and had balanced judo and studies in his younger days, Charles Mukuamu laid down the law when it came to his sons and this game he was still getting a feel for.
“‘You do that, I will be fine with you (playing football),’” Charles Mukuamu recalled telling his son. “If you don’t do that, I’m going to pull you out. That was the commitment we did with Israel.”
In Israel’s freshman year of high school, Joseph said the three youngest brothers’ grades had started to slip, prompting a break from the game. Sergio had to convince their dad to let them play again. Cruce had been gone from Berkeley for a few years when Israel Mukuamu made his first college decision for the Seminoles. But the coach still got a call from the 17-year-old, just thanking him for what he’d done early on in that career. Looking back, Cruce saw Mukuamu as something pretty rare.
“It happens all the time in high school where you have kids like him and then they don’t work like he does,” Cruce said. “And they don’t reach their full potential. It’s fun when you see kids like him that reach their potential.”
THE LESSONS OF COLLEGE
The learning experience of Oct. 26, 2019 for Israel Mukuamu was about perception. He’d risen to being a starter in the SEC and was the central star of South Carolina’s win against Georgia two weeks prior, a victory that ranked as arguably USC’s best in nearly a decade.
But coming out of the game at Tennessee, the tone changed to a degree for the sophomore. The team had lost a game it couldn’t afford to lose, and Israel Mukuamu had been on the wrong end of a few big plays. He struggled in tackling a powerhouse receiver in a few spots. He also got beat on a post play that produced a long touchdown.
This was a day where he played 69 snaps. Most weren’t bad at all, but a few changed a lot of feelings and conversation about him. And in that, the lesson is at times not to listen, especially when those chattering on social media or message boards don’t see the full picture.
“One thing I understand is that everybody outside the team wouldn’t really understand what goes on inside the game,” Israel Mukuamu said. “In the game, you just see two bad plays and then for DBs, if you see two bad plays, you think, ‘Oh, he’s having a terrible game,’ but that’s really not the case. For most of those snaps, I played good. My coach (Travaris Robinson) always tells us, the difference between playing playing DB and playing D-tackle is DB, you make one bad play and everybody hates you.
He admitted there was a little frustration with the post-Tennessee commentary, but it reinforced the importance of blocking out that noise and focusing on the craft. Looking at it, Lawyer said that game might have driven Mukuamu a bit going forward, as he looked to make up for it. Ultimately the aim was to flush it and move on.
Israel Mukuamu’s time in college has featured the sort of natural growth that feels unnatural to many athletes who have always been stars. Players good enough to play in college generally play early and play a lot. Even one of Israel Mukuamu’s best friends on the team, Jaycee Horn, was living the life of a freshman starter in 2018.
And family saw that it was a bit of a process to figure out that sort of patience. Joseph Mukuamu remembered telling his brother to wait his turn, that his time is going to come.
“I think he was getting frustrated,” Sergio Mukuamu said. “He was like, ‘Man, I think I can play. I know I can play.’ I’m like, ‘It’s OK. You have seniors in front of you. They’ll leave soon. Then you’ll have your chance, but always be ready.’ “It only takes one play.”
As a freshman, he played in every game in a rotation role, but that meant a few or even no snaps in some games early on. But things changed a bit as 2018 progressed. Injuries mounted in the secondary and the team called on Israel Mukuamu more and more. By season’s end, he was starting, going head-to-head with Clemson’s decorated receiving group, a moment his father remembered with pride. Israel Mukuamu admitted there was a bigger overall lesson at year’s end.
“Year 1, you’re a freshman, you don’t really know,” Israel Mukuamu said. “You want to go hard, not really take care of your body. “Year 2, you’re playing more so you understand you can’t be up late at night ... just understand taking care of your body, stuff like that.”
His family attended games and reminded him his time would come. It all paid off with that glorious 2019 day in Athens between the hedges, when his three interceptions and one touchdown made possible the season’s biggest upset.
His father remembered it as the “most fantastic” game he’d seen, sitting among 500 raucous Gamecocks fans surrounded by more than 89,000 in Bulldogs red. Those games are intense afternoons, feeling the swings of emotions, hearing fans around the family talk about their son’s play. Sometimes, the family feels like they’re in the game. It wasn’t a perfect 2019, but it was a step forged in the lessons of waiting a bit and having to work a little more for it.
“When the coach came, I told him, ‘OK, there are so many schools that want Israel,’” Charles Mukuamu said, looking back at his son’s recruitment and a conversation with Will Muschamp. “But we trust you. We’re gonna give you Israel. The only thing I ask you: If he’s no good, don’t let him play. If he’s good, let him play. ... And that was the commitment. “Every time when the game finished, I talked to him. What Israel was telling me is exactly what is doing now. ... He told me ‘Daddy, I’ll just wait my time. When my number is gonna come, I’ll show up.’”
ANOTHER YEAR, AND MAYBE SOMETHING ELSE
Israel Mukuamu is playing on a bigger stage with higher stakes, but his father’s message about grades and education keeps ringing out. Between his height and his dominant Georgia performance, he’s caught at least the attention of those who write about the NFL Draft, and probably more than a few folks who work inside the league itself. But for the moment, he’s not listening too much to all that.
“I don’t really pay too much attention to it because I could go out this year and have a bad year and everybody can say whatever they want,” Israel Mukuamu said. “Or I can go out this year have a good year. So you’ve just got to block out all the outside noise and just go out there and compete and do your job.”
Some who write about or analyze the draft have suggested him as a first-round pick, potentially in 2021. But there are college football games scheduled between now and getting to that point.
This year is rife with uncertainty, to say the least. The whole start of college football was delayed, the seasons shaken up by the COVID-19 pandemic. Closing in on the start of the SEC season has been a tall task, and getting through a full season will be a taller one.
Israel Mukuamu’s father said it will be up to his son if he wants to take an early swing at the NFL or wait for 2022. Israel has done well in school, working toward a sports and entertainment management degree. Whatever choice he makes after whatever comes to pass in the coming months, he’s a young person who already made a pivotal life choice, accepting a situation where his family was split and seeing it all the way through.
His support system was there for it all — parents, brothers and many more who played roles in him getting him where he is. He was once the kid who could concentrate and run like few others — and he’s not changed much. He’s just older, wiser, experienced and on the doorstep of so much more.
“He continued to improve and everybody now recognizes him,” Charles Mukuamu. “But I like his patience. I like his presence, his calm. He always tells me, ‘My time is gonna come. When they call my name, Daddy, you’re going to see.’ That’s what it is now. We will pray (to) God. We know we’re gonna see him by the grace of God in the NFL. By the grace of God, he will be there and do amazing stuff. He didn’t finish yet with his potential.”