LAKE FOREST – They’re not exactly “The Odd Couple,” but Bears rookie linebackers Roquan Smith and Joel Iyiegbuniwe are roommates, and the expectations for them are distinctly different.
Smith, the first-rounder from Georgia, has practically been anointed an opening-day starter, but Iyiegbuniwe, a fourth-rounder from Western Kentucky, is likely to make his first impressions on special teams. After this weekend’s rookie minicamp, which started with a Friday afternoon practice inside the Walter Payton Center, they’ll have plenty of football to talk about.
Earlier in the Bears’ offseason program, the rookies had the opportunity to get to know each other aside from football, but Smith admits he still can’t pronounce his roomie’s last name correctly. (It’s ee-yay-boon-EE-way.)
“I’m not going to make an effort,” Smith said, chuckling. “But yeah, it’s been great rooming with him. It’s just basic background stuff on each other. How it was growing up, different things like that. The next couple nights will be different because we’ll be talking ball, just trying to help each other out, so that’ll be good.”
Coach Matt Nagy said one of the important things he focuses on during rookie minicamp is players who learn from mistakes that are inevitable – but correctable. Because they play the same position, the two young linebackers are ideal study partners.
“We can both help each other,” Iyiegbuniwe said. “We can learn from each other and [try to] not make the same mistakes. That’s definitely big. We’re already talking and studying together. I’m just picking his brain and learning as much as I can.”
Smith seems like an ideal fit for Vic Fangio’s defense, which has helped produce great linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, when the Bears’ defensive coordinator held the same post with the 49ers. But Smith isn’t complicating his transition to the NFL by obsessing about expectations or comparisons.
“I’m not thinking about just being a starter,” the 6-foot-1, 236-pound Smith said. “I’ll start on special teams. If that’s what they want me to do, I’ll do it. It’s not like I’m just saying, ‘Hey, I have to be the starter.’ You crawl before you walk.”
Smith knows all about the legacy of great Bears linebackers, but he isn’t overwhelmed by the responsibility that would come with taking his place in that long line.
“I know what I can do, and I’m confident in my abilities,” Smith said. “I am who I am. I showcase what I can do. I can’t make things up. I am who I am.”
No one will be surprised if Smith sprints onto the first team, right next to fellow linebacker Danny Trevathan, early in training camp. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Iyiegbuniwe’s path will be longer and more torturous, but the NFL is full of starting linebackers who used excellence on special teams as a springboard to success. He knows how important special teams are for him.
“It’s huge,” Iyiegbuniwe said. “I played kickoff and punt, [and] kick return, while I was at WKU, so whatever they need me to do. I’ve already talked to the different coaches about what they need me to do. So, I told [special-teams coordinator Chris Tabor], ‘If that’s what you need me to do, that’s what I’m gonna do.’ ”
But the Bears wouldn’t have used a fourth-round pick on Iyiegbuniwe if they didn’t believe he had the potential to eventually help them on defense. General manager Ryan Pace said Iyiegbuniwe repeatedly caught his eye during the pre-draft process because of his play on defense.
“He’s a physical, fast, athletic, highly intelligent player,” Pace said after the draft. “When you turn on the tape, it just jumps out, the way he plays, just a real physical, downhill style.”
Pace was so impressed with Iyiegbuniwe’s tape that he couldn’t resist sharing with Nagy.
“There are numerous plays where, [I’d say] ‘Hey, Matt, you’ve got to come in here and see this play,’ ” Pace said. “ ‘[See] how physical he is?’ He throws his body around. There are a lot of plays in the backfield. He’s really a fun guy to watch because of all those reasons.”
Pace also shared his opinions and impressions with Iyiegbuniwe after the draft, which has provided the rookie with motivation going forward.
“When I heard that from Mr. Pace, it was awesome and made me feel great,” the 22-year-old said. “Just the hard work I put in, and for him to recognize that and pick me was awesome. So I’m definitely not going to let him down and continue to make those plays.”
If he does, Iyiegbuniwe and Smith could progress from rooming together to eventually starting together.