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Smith, Iyiegbuniwe helping each other assimilate

Posted May 11, 2018

Bears draft picks and inside linebackers Roquan Smith and Joel Iyiegbuniwe are bonding at the team's rookie minicamp and helping each other transition into the NFL.

Last season at Georgia, Roquan Smith was named SEC defensive player of year and won the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker. But the Bears first-round pick evidently does have some limitations.

Since arriving at rookie minicamp Thursday, Smith has been bonding with fellow inside linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe, a fourth-round draft pick from Western Kentucky. But Smith admitted Friday that he still doesn't know how to pronounce his new teammate's last name.

"I don't yet, so I'm not going to make an effort," Smith told reporters.

Correctly pronouncing Iyiegbuniwe (it's actually Ee-Yay-Boo-Nee-Way) likely won't happen overnight. But the fact that the two rookies play the same position and are rooming together at a team hotel this weekend should help both of them assimilate to the Bears and the NFL.

"It's good," Smith said. "We can both help each other. We can learn from each other and not make the same mistakes. That's definitely big."

"We're roommates, so we're already talking and studying together," Iyiegbuniwe said. "I'm just picking his brain and learning as much as I can. He's a really down-to-earth guy, super personable. We've chatted about all types of stuff, just in the 24 hours we've been here. He's a really cool guy. I'm excited to get to work with him."

Selected by the Bears with the eighth pick in the draft, Smith led Georgia last year with 137 tackles, 6.5 sacks and 14.0 tackles-for-loss. He was named MVP of the Rose Bowl after recording 11 tackles in a win over Oklahoma that sent the Bulldogs to the CFP championship game, where they lost in overtime to Alabama.

Smith is a speedy, tenacious sideline-to-sideline three-down linebacker who excels against the run as well as in pass coverage. Some have predicted that the 6-1, 236-pounder will become the latest in a long line of talented Bears linebackers, and that's just fine with him.

"I expect a lot of myself as well," Smith said. "I have a ton of respect for the guys that came before me and played the position, many legends here. It's great to try to come in and do something special, but I'll just be the best player I can be."

Smith spent some time with Dick Butkus when the Georgia product was presented the Butkus Award and also when he was in California for the Rose Bowl. Although he obviously never saw Butkus play live, Smith knows all about the Bears Hall of Fame middle linebacker.

"You hear about the award as a kid," Smith said. "Then there's YouTube, so you can always go in there and watch mini-videos and see some of his vicious hits."

Smith is excited to play in coordinator Vic Fangio's defense. The 21-year-old grew up as a fan of 49ers inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who thrived in Fangio's system in San Francisco.

"He's a great coach," Smith said. "Just some of the things he does on defense. He blitzes ‘backers. He puts them in the best possible situation to make plays. He's kind of a reserved guy, but he knows his ball. He knows what he's doing."

Iyiegbuniwe, meanwhile, was selected by the Bears with the 115th overall pick in the draft. A two-year starter at Western Kentucky, he was named first-team All-Conference USA last season after leading the Hilltoppers with 117 tackles and 11.5 tackles-for-loss while also recording two sacks and three forced fumbles.

The Bears see Iyiegbuniwe as a highly-intelligent player who possesses excellent athleticism and speed as well as a physical, downhill style. After the draft, general manager Ryan Pace told reporters that he pulled coach Matt Nagy into his office during the pre-draft process to watch some of Iyiegbuniwe's explosive plays.

"When I heard that from Mr. Pace, it was awesome and made me feel great," Iyiegbuniwe said. "Just the hard work I put in, 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."

Like his roommate, Iyiegbuniwe is familiar with the Bears' storied history, especially on defense. It may even resonate more with him given that he was born at Cook County Hospital and lived in the Chicago area until moving to Kentucky when he was eight years old.

"It's a blessing to be able to come back home," Iyiegbuniwe said. "The history here, the legacy that the different players, especially the defensive players, have left here is awesome. Getting to come back home and try to leave my own legacy is surreal."