Josh Imatorbhebhe can fly. Is he the next DK Metcalf?
His vertical leap of 46.5" last week would've set a Combine record. The Illinois wide receiver is a physical anomaly. Fueling it all? An "animalistic" instinct he found, lost, then found again.
The sensation is indescribable. It sweeps through his body, he feels possessed and — more often than not — there will be casualties.
Josh Imatorbhebhe remembers the day he really felt this in high school.
“It just was this… this… animalistic, savage-like, primitive-like twitch,” the former Illinois wide receiver says, physically twitching his body. “I’m telling you. I don’t know where it came from honestly, just to where I would like change. I can’t explain it. The best way to explain it, is it’s like a fight-or-flight reaction. When you sense something, you… instead of flight, I’d fight all the time. And I’d win.”
So, arms crossed, via Zoom, he starts from the top.
Imatorbhebhe (pronounced “ee-MAT-or-bay-bay”) was a high school sophomore in 2013, watching Nike’s “The Opening” when high-schooler Speedy Noil leapt straight up into the air and let out a rebel yell to record a jump of 45.3 inches. Right then, Imatorbhebhe told himself: I have to get there. I have to get there. The goal stayed at the forefront of his mind for a year — he told himself these words every day — yet Imatorbhebhe was stuck at 42 inches. No matter how hard he trained, how much he practiced, how much he obsessed over this, he couldn’t make gains.
Into offseason conditioning for his junior season of football at North Gwinnett (Ga.), players gathered for “mat drills” that culminated with the usual one-on-one wrestling matches. It was athletic competition at its purest. Here, one player started pinned at the bottom, one started in control on top and the head coach gave them 10 seconds to duke it out.
This day, Imatorbhebhe was pinned by a player named Mitchell Gladstein.
He could hardly move an inch.
“And then,” Imatorbhebhe says, “something just clicked in my mind. I swear. I flipped him over and I pulled his shoulder and, unfortunately, I ended up tearing his labrum. I didn’t mean to do that. But it was just like a switch that flipped in my mind.”
He truly means that, too. He insists there’s no controlling this twitch.
“People who have this instinct know exactly what I’m talking about. I was like, ‘Whoa. I didn’t even know I was capable of that.’ It builds confidence. I don’t want to build confidence by hurting anybody else. But once you see what you’re capable of, you’re like, ‘Damn. I didn’t know that was inside of me.’”
That one moment in time convinced Imatorbhebhe that there was something “animalistic” deep down inside of him that’d truly allow him to accomplish anything.
Like crush that vertical record.
Soon enough, there Imatorbhebhe was at The Opening, alongside future pros like DK Metcalf and Mecole Hardman and Dwayne Haskins and, surrounded by camera phones everywhere. When it was time to jump, that same exact adrenaline rush returned and Imatorbhebhe turned to his friend, current Giants receiver Austin Mack. “I’m about to break this record,” he told him. Then, the USC-bound recruit closed his eyes, pulled his arms back, dipped and exploded as high as he could.
A viral video was born. Imatorbhebhe does not even look human jumping 47.1” in a clip that’s up to 1,397,197 million views. He floats in the air for what feels like an eternity and you hear a loud, “What!”
Imatorbhebhe would clearly bring this gift to USC and be legendary.
Yet then, he lost that instinct. He caught two passes for 11 yards in three years at USC.
Imatorbhebhe transferred to Illinois in 2019, rediscovered himself through a 33-catch, 634-yard, nine-touchdown season and — last week — blew up Illinois’ pro day. His combination of a 46.5” vertical, 4.48 time in the 40 and 24 reps on the bench press all at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds is not normal. Despite gaining 15 pounds since that 47.1,” he smashed the best Combine jump ever, 46.0,” by Gerald Sensabaugh in ‘05. We all haphazardly toss the term “physical freak” around this time of year but there is zero debating Imatorbhebhe is the physically freakiest of them all this 2021 draft.
His path to the 2021 NFL draft has been odd and circuitous but if a team is able to harness this twitch, this explosion for good? Maybe Imatorbhebhe may have a DK Metcalf-like ceiling. Once upon time, Metcalf fell to 64th overall because teams weren’t so sure his bodybuilder physique would fly at the position. It has. He turned one-on-one matchups into bully ball.
Now, Imatorbhebhe believes he can do same exact thing.
“I see what has happened to him,” Imatorbhebhe says. “and I feel like very similar things can and will happen to me.”
He speaks so confidently now because the animal inside is back.
This time, he hopes, for good.
This extraterrestrial leaping ability traces back to sixth grade. A young Josh Imatorbhebhe watched the documentary, “More than a Game,” which followed LeBron James through high school and discovered that the best basketball player in the world first dunked when he was in eighth grade.
So, the first goal was set. He had two years. Imatorbhebhe would also dunk in eighth grade. No ifs. No ands. No buts. He practiced the crisp art of synchronizing every muscle in his body to explode straight up into the sky. First, he touched the rim. Then, he grabbed the rim. Then, he grabbed the rim with two hands. Next, he dunked with a tennis ball. And in an eighth-grade tournament, a teammate suddenly threw him an alley-oop.
As he recalls, he “just jumped.” He didn’t think he’d actually flush the ball through the cylinder.
And he did.
“People wonder, how do you build confidence?” Imatorbhebhe says. “You build confidence by doing something you thought you previously could not do. You build a trust in yourself. And you’re like, ‘Hold on. What other thing is there that I think I can’t do that I can?’ And it kind of rolls on from there. Honestly, truly from there, it just kind of spring-boarded me to another level of confidence and just believing that there’s nothing I can’t do. I’ll say that’s where the leaping ability starts, with a ‘Heck yeah,’ and I started to double-down into it.”
He didn’t stop there. From oops to one-handed jams to two-handed jams to vicious tomahawks to jumping from the paint to even — like MJ, like Dr. J, like Brent Barry — jumping from the free-throw line, Imatorbhebhe pushed himself to heights he didn’t think existed and his confidence soared. Only soared.
That moment, at age 13, was a “life-altering moment.” Right then, he knew anything was possible.
The scene that day? Everyone in the gym, he explains, was stunned to the point of near-silence.
“There’s times, you’re like, ‘WHOA!’ And there’s times, it’s just breathtaking, like ‘Whoa…’” says Imatorbhebhe at two starkly different volume levels. “There wasn’t an expression able to be given. Like, when something’s awesome, you’re ‘Whoa! Dude, that was sick!’ But when something’s truly unbelievable, you don’t even have the words. You’re just like, ‘Whoa.’ That’s how it was for the guys, honestly, and I felt it, too.”
So, the NBA was “1,000 percent” the goal.
Imatorbhebhe says he was the No. 3-ranked eighth-grader in the state of Georgia, made the North Gwinnett varsity team as a freshman and, true, there is proof he’s not just another football player claiming to be a former basketball prodigy. While Imatorbhebhe believes he would’ve made it to the NBA if he stuck with the sport, he also knew he wasn’t going to be 6-foot-6 or 6-foot-7. The market for 6-2 small forwards — even ones with insane leaping ability — is nonexistent. Clearly, he’d have a higher ceiling in football. And since his personality is such that he has to be all in with one sport, Imatorbhebhe gave up basketball entirely for football.
He mentally could not give one sport 80 percent of focus and another sport 20 percent, so he transferred all of his “ambition from basketball to football.”
“I really believe in the power of concentration,” he says. “You put all the chips in. I’m giving it everything that I’ve got.”
It was right around then that another goal was planted in his brain, too.
One year after The Dunk, Imatorbhebhe visited USC’s campus. He happened to be out west visiting Los Angeles on spring break and a high school coach put his family in touch with the school’s coaching staff — Daniel Imatorbhebhe, one year older, was a football prospect himself. And coming from Suwanee, Ga. (pop: 20,000), the city’s sights and sounds were mesmerizing to Josh. Everywhere he looked, he saw Bentleys and Ferraris and Roll Royces and Maybachs. The scenery was beautiful, too. He had never seen oceans and mountains and a clear blue sky blend like this before.
Finally, the school’s tradition blew him away. All the first-round picks. All the Heismans.
Everything, he says, was “captivating.” A “profound” experience at such a young age.
“All of that at once was, ‘I can’t not want to go here. This is heaven on earth to me,’” Imatorbhebhe says. “So in the back of my head, everything was ‘I have to go to SC.’”
He devoted all energy to football. He earned all A’s in school. He trained like never before. He had that 47.1-inch jump at The Opening and, on the field, caught 59 passes for 1,072 yards (18.2 ypc) with 15 touchdowns as a high school junior. He was labeled a four-star recruit by Rivals and the 18th-best wide receiver in the nation by 247 Sports Composite.
Each Friday night, he embarrassed kids under the lights.
That inner-belief fueled it all, too. It was always fight, never flight.
“Once you sense opposition, something just kind of takes over,” Imatorbhebhe says. “It’s a twitch. I can’t really explain it. But the people who have it, have it. And you know these people who have it. The best football players have it. Kobe called it the Mamba Mentality. Michael Jordan had it. It’s like an assassin’s like, you’re just… it just takes over. I can’t explain it. But that is what enables people to accomplish things they normally wouldn’t in their right mind.”
Surely, that animal within would be unleashed 2,200 miles west.
Only, it wasn’t.
There was hardly a whimper.
No longer did Josh Imatorbhebhe believe he could shatter every goal in front of him. That twitch? Gone.
For three years at USC, nothing but doubt consumed him.
At his dream school, Imatorbhebhe never came close to seeing his name immortalized next to all the legends at that same facility that once hypnotized him as a kid. Hell, he couldn’t even get on the field. Deemed a bust, he was neatly buried on the depth chart. Forgotten. The new reality was that Imatorbhebhe wasn’t good enough to even see the field. And Imatorbhebhe struggled with this reality “every day.”
This was, easily, the darkest time of his life.
“You’re struggling with identity,” he says. “You’re struggling with your self-worth. You’re struggling with your future and your goals. Every day was just a struggle. How you see yourself is extremely in question because you know how you see yourself. You know who you are and what you’re capable of but it’s like you’re not living at that potential.”
The Dunk. The vertical record. The USC offer. Since he could remember, Imatorbhebhe set goals and conquered those goals.
He earned 30-plus scholarship offers. He was a high school All-American.
“Everything I put my mind to do, I did it,” Imatorbhebhe says. “So in my mind, there was no fail. In my mind, I didn’t know what that was. So the first time that I was put into that reality, the first time I was checked… (I was) redshirted. What? I was supposed to be a freshman All-American this year. Second year, redshirt freshman year, it’s when I’m supposed to be coming into my own, I was struggling with the second-stringers. Not really getting into the game. And it’s just like, ‘This isn’t the plan! I’m supposed to be first-team All-Pac 12.’”
That third year, Imatorbhebhe suffered a Grade 3 high ankle sprain in training camp, missed five weeks, tried to come back and the depth chart was set by then.
It was time to go.
Imatorbhebhe graduated early at USC and decided to take his two years of eligibility elsewhere in a last-ditch effort to resuscitate his football career. Toiling in NCAA’s transfer portal from January to June, the wideout admits he needed to do plenty of soul searching. It felt like he was “free-falling” through those six months because he was neither here, nor there. He cannot recall one specific, look-in-the-mirror moment when things turned for the better, no, such an overnight cure didn’t exist.
In transfer mode, Imatorbhebhe more so gradually began to look at those three years as a message from above. He needed to inherently change.
“I feel that was God’s way of humbling me,” Imatorbhebhe says. “I became pretty egotistical and selfish — ‘I’m this, I’m that.’ But it was very, very humbling. It brought me back to my roots and allowed me to build in a sustainable way. … Part of it is that dominant ability, but I feel like he has to be able to trust you so you don’t do things for selfish gain.
“I wouldn’t have had it any other way…”
With those words, Imatorbhebhe catches himself. On second thought, he absolutely does not want to experience this depth of “despair” and “hopelessness” and “confusion” he did then.
The despair cut deeper than he’s even letting on.
“Heartbroken. Heartbroken, man,” he says. “It didn’t just affect football. It affected my relationships with people back home. It affected my mental health. It affected my physical health. It affected everything. Because I don’t know how to not give everything I have to something. So, imagine investing all of your money, every single thing that you own into a stock or a business or a piece of real estate and you lose it all. And that’s how it was.
“I was completely destitute for a while. I was running on fumes, man. I was really hanging on by a thread.”
He chose Illinois. He had those nine touchdowns in 2019.
He now envisions being the next DK Metcalf.
His confidence, unquestionably, is back.
Let’s be honest. The state of affairs was not ideal at Illinois, either. By the time Imatorbhebhe left for the NFL, the coaching staff was fired. In last year’s truncated season, the quarterback room was hit hard by Covid-19. Four different players threw passes for an offense that’s already historically dreadful.
Still, in ‘19, Imatorbhebhe was able to revive that inner-Mamba, inner-animal. Illinois’ best shot at scoring was to essentially chuck it up to their superhuman transfer and hope for the best. As the team went a very-blah 6-7 in a very-blah offensive scheme. Imatorbhebhe’s nine touchdowns on 33 receptions — one hell of an efficiency rate — hinted that, like Metcalf, he just may be a better pro than college player. You had to look closely to see how Metcalf’s gifts could lead to special production. (He, too, was hindered by poor QB play.)
So, while a reel of these highlights has 0.9 percent of the views that the 47.1” jump generated, it’s far more useful in figuring out if Imatorbhebhe is DK Lite.
First, he clowns Tahj Herring-Wilson by plucking a touchdown right above his head in the end zone. The corner is fully extended, with his right arm reaching as high as it possibly can into the sky, but it does not matter. Next, Imatorbhebhe catches a short pass and busts through Herring-Wilson’s arms for another score.
On a fourth and 10 vs. Eastern Michigan — down 31-24, 1:58 left, at his own seven-yard line —Imatorbhebhe snares a 32-yarder in-between a trio of DBs. Three plays later, he catches another deep ball on a comeback route and carries a cornerback across the goal-line for a TD.
In a 42-25 loss to Michigan, Imatorbhebhe put on a show, plucking jump balls inches above the heads of helpless corners and ripping through more arm tackles.
One 52-yard touchdown vs. Rutgers? DKesque. There’s separation.
Part of it, Imatorbhebhe explains, was “desperation.” He knew opportunities would be scarce in this offense so he felt he had to score every time. He sincerely didn’t know when he’d see the ball again in this run-heavy offense.
But he most certainly was himself again. Teammates witnessed that animal inside Imatorbhebhe often. Illinois running back Chase Brown calls his mindset “one of one.”
“He’s a different guy,” Brown says. “And that’s why his game is different when he finally got the opportunity.”
The first thing players noticed? Imatorbhebhe talking to himself. Often.
“He would say, ‘Hey, Josh, it’s time to go, it’s time to go, it’s time to dominate, it’s time to dominate,’” Brown says. “He’d repeat these phrases to himself. He finds a lot of motivation in God. He’s a pretty spiritual guy. And when he gets into that zone, he’s locked in. You can tell on his face and you can see it in his body language. There’s just a feeling you get around him that he’s locked in and ready to go. You can see it. You feel his energy.”
Brown remembers seeing this most before Illinois upset then-undefeated Wisconsin in ’19.
“You feel it,” Brown says. “I knew that boy was ready to go.”
Mainly because Imatorbhebhe reset his foundation off the field. He says he quit being so selfish and completely recentered.
Looking back, Imatorbhebhe is convinced the USC experience was precisely what he needed. As a kid growing up, he felt his parents paid more attention to his two older brothers than himself. (“No one took me seriously,” he says.) His star rose. He became larger than life — quickly — and got a little full of himself. USC brought him right back down… into an abyss he does not want to see again. Imatorbhebhe finds peace today in listening to sermons as much as possible. He dials up Levi Lusko often because he loves how the pastor of Fresh Life Church contextualizes the Bible to the world today. He’ll also listen to Jentezen Franklin, his pastor back in Georgia. Sure, Imatorbhebhe knows he could do other things for fun — go fishing, go ATV’ing — but, to him, hobbies can also be “distractions.” He’s trying to sharpen his focus like never before.
At Illinois, he also earned his Masters degree.
Now, he sees Metcalf parallels.
The two receivers have remained friends since meeting in 2015 and the Seahawks receiver’s numbers at the Combine (4.33, 40.5,” 27 reps) were similar.
“I definitely see a lot of similarities in our lives honestly,” he says. “He’s a man of faith just like I am. He was under-utilized at Ole Miss and they had an offense where they really didn’t run the full route tree. And he really didn’t have a ton of production. But he was extremely athletic and tested out of the waters. And then after that, everything is history.”
Metcalf had a viral moment, too. His shirtless picture broke the Internet two weeks before the 2019 Combine. Yet, in a weird way, that picture and that performance in Indy seemed to be more curse than blessing. Many scouts saw a muscle-bound receiver who wouldn’t really be able to use his speed and power for good in the NFL. His time in the three-cone drill was hyper-scrutinized and, to many, full proof he’s too top-heavy to cut on a dime.
Now, of course, Metcalf is one of the best wide receivers in football. Last season, he caught 83 passes for 1,303 yards with 10 touchdowns.
So, this is how Imatorbhebhe puts it: There are things that can be taught and there are things that cannot be taught. Metcalf wasn’t asked to run the whole route tree at Ole Miss but that didn’t mean he couldn’t do it. And Imatorbhebhe believes he’s in the exact same situation. When you’re running go routes and hitches and posts all the time, he explains, that random dig route you run in a game setting isn’t going to look clean on tape.
But route running, to him, can be taught.
The best vertical ever? Something like this?
“What you do often and what you do all the time is what you get good at,” Imatorbhebhe says. “Now, when you have an NFL playbook and they tell you that you have to run all these other routes, you’re going to focus on running all those other routes because you have to run all those other routes. See what I’m saying? But what you can’t teach is athleticism. You can’t teach somebody that’s 6-4, 228 running a 4.33. You can’t teach that. Coaches have no dictation of what players can do that. When you have a player who is that extraordinary, that athletic, they just need to be in the right system and they need to have the right coaches.
“Obviously, they need to put in the work, but at the end of the day, if all else is equal, it isn’t equal. They’re going to be able to thrive. I don’t understand why we’re making it so hard. This is a man’s game. Truly. It’s a man’s game. And the person who has the most God-given ability — if able to do what he needs to do technically — the sky’s the limit for those guys.”
There’s an infinite number of cautionary tales. So many athletes seem like the next big thing sprinting and jumping in leotards, only to completely bomb as pros. One NFC scout who actually likes Imatorbhebhe as a prospect admits he cannot buy into him completely since he never was able to bust out at USC. That splotch on the resume is hard for him to look past.
Elsewhere, Brown doesn’t think it’s so crazy to use Metcalf’s name in the same sentence. As he points out, Imatorbhebhe might’ve jumped even higher than 46.5” on his first pro day attempt. Half of his hand was above the markers.
Then, there’s that film.
“If you look at his film, he’s an explosive athlete,” says Brown. “When he gets the ball in his hands, he’s electric. If you are comparing him to DK Metcalf, you look at DK Metcalf in the NFL vs. his college career, his NFL career is much better than what he was in college. But DK Metcalf in the NFL can jump, he’s explosive, his routes are really good.
“Josh had a ridiculous 2019 season. I don’t see why he can’t do that once he gets into the NFL.”
Time will tell. The Metcalf comp could be far too stretchy of a stretch—maybe all the draft experts are correct to peg Imatorbhebhe as a mid-round pick. You’re gambling here. You’re more so gambling on raw leaping ability than straight-up looking like a Greek God at 4.33. And you’re also gambling that one of the best programs in the country, USC, was dead-wrong.
And yet, it’s a gamble that could pay off in a big way. Especially in this new NFL where receivers are able to attack the ball in the air mostly unscathed.
All of these traits could be molded into… something.
“A lot of it is on the players,” Imatorbhebhe says, “especially on the professional level just because they’re paying you money to do it. So, you should be invested in your development as well. But yeah… I don’t know why they disregard athleticism because I feel that’s the only thing they don’t have control over.”
A team will take this chance at some point and we’ll all know early on in training camp if Josh Imatorbhebhe is going to make it.
Keep an eye on the daily injury report.
Someone on that team just may have their labrum torn.