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A new friend: Joel Iyiegbuniwe brings leadership and versatility to the Bears

Forever overlooked, the Bears’ young linebacker is a physical freak and diligent master of his craft.

Iyiegbuniwe’s dedication could make him a star in Chicago.
247 Sports

The great thing about the NFL Draft is that you can find talent anywhere. From the highest of Alabama football levels to the lowest Division III playing fields, if a player belongs against the big boys, he’s going to make his mark regardless of college status.

Enter Joel Iyiegbuniwe, who played for relatively obscure Division I FBS Western Kentucky. An incredibly productive and explosive starter for the Hilltoppers in the last two years, it wasn’t always that way for Iyiegbuniwe. He first had to work his way up as a special teamer showing he was willing to sacrifice everything for his team. He had to make his mark on the third phase as a role player before he received his shot with the defense. A shot that would eventually take him to the NFL with the Bears.

After Iyiegbuniwe stepped in an as inside linebacker and occasional pass rusher for Western Kentucky, it was all uphill from there. 181 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles are mere surface box score scratches of what Iyiegbuniwe accomplished. He was rangy. He was instinctive. And he led his defense with a perennial chip on his shoulder for any ball carrier or pass target that dared cross his path: a trademark.

As he makes his transition to the NFL, Iyiegbuniwe is going to have to polish up his skill set tremendously. The jump in competition is significant but not overwhelming. All Iyiegbuniwe has to do to succeed with the Bears is do what he did in college: relentlessly plug away.

I spoke with Joe Londergan of Underdog Dynasty to better understand how Iyiegbuniwe’s transition to pro football should unfold, and to gauge how high of hopes the Bears should have in the young linebacker.

A lot of people that follow the Bears were wondering “who?” when they selected Iyiegbuniwe. Why does this pick make sense for Chicago? What does he bring to the table?

Joe Londergan: I get that reaction. The fourth round was higher than I expected him to go, and Chicago had no contact with him prior to draft day. But good for him and the Bears.

I think it makes sense for Chicago because there’s room for improvement in defending the run and the short pass game. That’s where “Iggy” (don’t worry about his nicknames) shines. The biggest thing you’re going to notice if you go back and watch any of his college film is his motor. Wherever the ball is, he usually isn’t far behind. That’s why he led the team in tackles and tackles for loss last season. He was an absolute tackling machine at the college level.

Plus, Iyiegbuniwe’s extremely smart. He wants to go to medical school after he’s done with football. Always tackling higher aspirations.

And, as an added bonus ... he was born in Chicago! Iyiegbuniwe moved to Kentucky with his parents when he was a little kid. Funny how things come full circle.

Iyiegbuniwe started slow but then had a meteoric rise at Western Kentucky, at least statistically. This came after playing sparingly the last two years of high school. What factors brought about his successful development?

JL: Western Kentucky was actually Iggy’s only FBS offer coming out of high school. It makes sense considering he played high school ball in the same town as the college, and his dad being a professor there.

Injuries in Iyiegbuniwe’s senior year of high school and freshman year of college took him off of people’s radars. After playing safety in high school, he hit the weights and beefed up to play linebacker while keeping his defensive back speed. That served him well against the faster-paced offenses in Conference USA. Iyiegbuniwe is highly versatile, which makes me think he’ll stick around for a while in the NFL. Western Kentucky’s linebackers coach Maurice Crum (a former Notre Dame player) talked about how versatile Iggy is in a Bowling Green Daily News piece a few years ago:

”You’ve got to be able to rush the passer, cover a tight end, be in the right spot in multiple defenses. I think his skill set allows him to be that versatile guy on the field.”

It also helps that Iyiegbuniwe had that “quarterback of the defense” quality. Former head coach Jeff Brohm and current lead Mike Sanford noticed that, which is why he became a team captain as a junior. He’s able to read offensive formations on top of being an excellent leader. Taking advantage of his physical and mental gifts is what allowed him to be successful as an amateur.

What would you say to concerns about the level of competition Iyiegbuniwe played against in college? How long do you think it’ll take him to acclimate to the pros and what will help with that transition?

JL: Sure, Western Kentucky wasn’t playing the best teams in the country every week. But I wouldn’t worry about it. For one, go watch WKU’s game against Alabama from 2016. They lost that game, but Iyiegbuniwe held his own with 10 tackles against the No. 1 team in the country at the time. He turned in similar days every time Western Kentucky played a Power-Five team in 2016 and 2017.

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Alabama
Iyiegbuniwe’s game against Alabama was one of his best.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Then against Group of Five football teams, he had double-digit tackles every game, including two games in 2017 where he had 15 tackles.

I’m not saying that Iyiegbuniwe is going to be an instant star for the Bears. I can, however, see him getting good work on special teams right away. That’s how he first earned his way into a linebacker spot at Western Kentucky. Maybe not in 2018, but I think he can be a regular contributor for the Bears defense as a key guy off the bench. When he does get his shot to play meaningful minutes at linebacker, it’s that intellect that’s going to help him adjust to the speed of the NFL. He’ll learn the Bears’ defensive scheme and opposing offenses quickly. A small caveat maintains that the 229 pound Iyiegbuniwe could stand to get bigger before then.

What would you be concerned about Iyiegbuniwe at the next level? What are aspects of his game he has to work on? Is it fair to call him the future next to Roquan Smith? What’s his NFL ceiling?

JL: Something Iyiegbuniwe needs to stop doing is going for the ball when he goes for tackles. When he’d get into the backfield at Western Kentucky, he’d try to strip the ball and end up wrestling the ball carrier to the ground in the process. Running backs in the NFL are tougher and carry the ball more tightly. He needs to focus more on stopping their leg drive. You can’t get a turnover every play. He’s not going to be able to outmuscle every NFL running back.

That being said, yes, I think he has a bright future that will come with practice and time to adjust. Iyiegbuniwe’s ceiling is earning himself a starting spot somewhere down the road and keeping it for a couple of years.

What’s one memory that sticks out to you about Iyiegbuniwe at Western Kentucky?

JL: Iyiegbuniwe is a big deal in Bowling Green for being a local kid that stayed home, put in the hours, and was a major contributor to two Conference USA championship teams at Western Kentucky.

Weirdly, one of the games I’ll always remember Iyiegbuniwe for is the 2016 Boca Raton Bowl against Memphis, which he was ejected from almost immediately. Memphis threw a short pass and he was instantly in the backfield to bring down the ball carrier. The officials called the hit targeting, which was suspect at best. I thought it was a clean hit. That’s college football for you.

Iyiegbuniwe quietly put together a fantastic career at Western Kentucky. He’s a polite, hardworking, and bright young man. I’m looking forward to seeing the heights he climbs in the NFL.

Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.