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Joel Iyiegbuniwe's Time May Have Finally Come with Bears

Fourth-round 2018 draft pick has opportunity to replace Nick Kwiatkoski after a learning process during the past two seasons

It's probably no indictment of Joel Iyiegbuniwe's athletic ability that he hasn't stepped forward into a prominent defensive roll so far with the Bears.

Besides having four good inside linebackers ahead of him last year on the depth chart, Iyiegbuniwe simply has needed time to fit into this role of NFL inside linebacker.

"I think Iggy has unbelievable talent," Bears inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone said. "I think he has size. I think he has strength. And he is one of the most cerebral players I've ever coached. And I think that Iggy is still a very young football player in a sense that he played at a small school (Western Kentucky), he's from a small town and he's kind of been growing his football intellect. OK? And I think he's made a tremendous jump this offseason."

DeLeone gets a bit defensive about Iyiegbuniwe because he has played only 26 snaps on defense in two years and has drawn some criticism as being a poor draft selection.

Iyiegbuniwe came out for the draft a year early, so he had only three real college seasons. He had redshirted as a freshman after a knee injury three games into the season. 

He hadn't really settled in as a linebacker in high school until his senior year because he'd been a safety, and at Western Kentucky they moved him between outside linebacker and an edge rusher spot to finally let him play inside linebacker in his final year.

In that final Western Kentucky season he made a career-high 117 tackles, including a career-high 11 1/2 for loss, with two sacks and three forced fumbles.

When the Bears selected him in Round 4, it came as a complete shock to him because his only contact with Chicago had been the fact he was born there and lived there and in Bolingbrook until he was 9 years old. The family then moved to Kentucky.

Iyiegbuniwe has done what any player who can't crack into the lineup does and focused on special teams. He's been among their special teams tackling leaders over the last two seasons with 10 total tackles.

After Nick Kwiatkoski and Kevin Pierre-Louis left in free agency, perhaps a true indicator of the Bears' confidence in Iyiegbuniwe is they never sought out a veteran inside linebacker replacement. They're counting on Iyiegbuniwe, Devante Bond and Josh Woods to do this, and DeLeone sees Iyiegbuniwe as his offseason, COVID-19 Zoom superstar.

During the Zoom meetings the team did to prepare in the offseason, Iyiegbuniwe was a standout.

"I think part of this whole thing with Zoom obviously it's unfortunate because we can't practice, we can't have OTAs, but the ability to focus on the details of the defense have been outstanding," DeLeone said. "From a teaching perspective, it's been so unique and special that like we would never get this opportunity in another setup.

"And I think Iggy has really taken advantage of that and bought into that and really grown his football intellect. I'm really excited to see him put it all together."

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Camp will tell whether it's false optimism.

At 6-foot-1, 226 pounds, Iyiegbuniwe seems a bit undersized to fit into the scheme at inside linebacker. But his speed is undeniable.

His 4.6-second 40-yard dash at the combine was a tenth off the fastest time recorded there for inside linebackers. The negative was his 19 bench presses was worse than five wide receivers and seven defensive backs

Still, after serving behind Kwiatkoski for two years and being watched closely as he learned the game and his position, it could simply be Iyiegbuniwe's time to assume the spot the Bears groomed him to take.

Joel Iyiegbuniwe at a Glance

Western Kentucky ILB

Height: 6-foot-1

Weight: 226

Key Numbers: Iyiegbuniwe played 75% of special teams snaps in 2018 and 72% in 2019.

Roster Chances: 4 on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being the most.

2020 Projection: 16 tackles, no starts, eight special teams tackles.

Twitter: BearDigest@BearsOnMaven