Almost all of the Northwestern skill position players are long gone from the weight room in Nicolet Football Center. Some mill about the lobby, munching on post-workout snacks, sipping Gatorade and joking around with their teammates. Eventually, they slowly head out, done with their early-morning duties and excited to get home to enjoy the beautiful Evanston summer.
But not starting safety Godwin Igwebuike. He’s still working. Listed generously at 6-foot-0 and 200 pounds, the junior is easily recognized among the group of linemen who have started their lifting session.
Finally he emerges through the door, shirtless, sweat glistening off his brow.
It should come as no surprise.
“[I’m] being more of an example, which I’ve been trying to do during the offseason as well, whether that be in the weight room, on the field doing agility or in practice,” Igwebuike told Inside NU. “Younger guys are going to look up to me.”
While All-American and All-Big Ten first teamer Anthony Walker got the main recognition for leading Northwestern’s defensive renaissance in 2015—and rightfully so—Igwebuike similarly took his game to the next level as a redshirt sophomore. He finished with 87 tackles, good for second on the team. His 4.5 tackles for loss were most among non-front seven defenders.
Despite his somewhat small size, Igwebuike is one of Northwestern’s most consistent tacklers, especially in the open field. Here’s how.
Igwebuike has fantastic straight-line speed, which allows him to attack downhill, sideline-to-sideline from his deep safety spot and sniff out any plays that get strung out.
(NOTE: All videos courtesy of BTN)
In this play, defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo (No. 7) gets a decent push, and Jaylen Prater (No. 51) demolishes his blocker as well. But neither will be able to track down Michigan’s Karan Higdon in the backfield. And offensive lineman Mason Cole gets to the edge quickly enough to seal off Nick VanHoose. This play is completely dependent on Igwebuike filling his lane and making the tackle. That he makes the tackle for a loss of four yards is due almost entirely to his fantastic closing speed.
A similar situation plays out on this end-around to Jehu Chesson. Deonte Gibson does a good job of staying at home, but he has no chance of catching the speedy wide receiver. Igwebuike, however, comes in like a missile, taking down Chesson for a big loss.
A third example of Igwebuike’s incredible straight-line speed is on display here against Duke. Needing just a few yards for the first down, Duke has two good lead blocking wide receivers on the outside. It looks like an easy third-down conversion. But the Wildcat safety stops Ryan Smith short with a big tackle after closing quickly.
Angles & Technique
For an undersized safety like Igwebuike, taking the correct angles and using the correct technique is extremely important, or else he’ll get run over.
“[Defensive backs] Coach [Jerry] Brown, one thing he talks about is taking smart angles, taking good angles, leveraging, not allowing defenders to use our momentum against us,” Igwebuike said. “That’s something we practice at least one, twice a week.”
In the above example, Igwebuike races into the screen at full speed but slows down with a stutter step and some choppy feet, sizes up his opponent and makes a perfect tackle in space to force a punt. Knowing he’s the smaller guy in this situation, Igwebuike goes at the hip/thigh area, giving Remound Wright no chance to run him over and no chance to beat him with a sidestep.
“Taking that half stutter step allows me gather myself a little more, diagnose exactly how fast they’re going and be able to get a little more contact on the legs,” he said.
Now make no mistake, when Igwebuike thinks he has the chance for a big hit, he’ll take it. Above, he absolutely blows up Duke’s Shaun Wilson, a smaller, shiftier guy. But it still starts with the fundamentals of getting in the right place to lay a big hit and knowing the opponent. At 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, Wilson is a target that Igwebuike can unload on. Even in the big hit above, you’ll see Igwebuike take a stutter step and make sure he’s in the correct position.
Igwebuike’s exceptional natural instincts are display on this play. He’s already creeping toward the line of scrimmage as Tennessee wide receiver Von Pearson comes in motion, and he breaks for the ballcarrier as soon as he gets it. Igwebuike lines up at his own seven, is at his own 10 by the time the ball reaches Pearson’s hands, and meets the Volunteer speedster at the 19. He diagnoses the play quickly, navigates blockers (and his own teammates) and submarines Pearson. While it’s not the most traditional tackle per se, it completely disrupts the sweep.
“One thing I try to do is trust myself,” Igwebuike said. “It’s easy to see a play developing, try to take your time, and make the safe tackle, but part of trusting yourself is going all out and trying to make the big plays. You can’t make big if you’re not going full speed at people in the backfield.”
This was one of the most important plays of Northwestern’s 4-0 non-conference slate. The offense had done absolutely nothing in Durham. Igwebuike not only races across the field to track down the speedy Wilson, but he rakes the ball out with his left arm as he takes down the Duke running back, jarring the ball loose. The ball then bounces toward Igwebuike after he completes the tackle, and he dives on it before it goes out of bounds. The Wildcats would get on the board on the resulting offensive possession.
"That goes on the teach tape until I die," Fitzgerald said after the game.
“It comes down to practice,” Igwebuike said of the technique. “That’s something that we teach all offseason, spring ball all the way to fall camp, even during the season at least once a week.”
Combining fantastic physical skills with solid technique and understanding of the correct angles makes for very good tackling, and that’s exactly what Igwebuike is able to do. But he’s not just a standout in the run game; his speed and play-making abilities come in handy defending the pass, too.
Igwebuike’s shining moments in the secondary came against Wisconsin as a redshirt freshman, when he picked off three passes in a single game. Last season, Igwebuike didn’t have a single pick, but that stat doesn’t really tell the whole story. The ball was rarely thrown in his direction.
“Sometimes you don’t get the opportunities to make plays on the ball,” he said. “This year I’m gonna try to be a little bit more aggressive as a pass defender.”
Still, Igwebuike was able to disrupt opponents’ downfield passing attack. The Wildcats surrendered just three plays of 40-plus yards through the air, tied for second-best in the nation.
Again, Igwebuike’s fantastic closing speed is on display. He’s not afraid to get in the mix and lower the boom.
Igwebuike is extremely aggressive, especially over the middle. On this example, it appears at first as if Igwebuike gets there way early, but the second angle shows that Igwebuike timed it pretty well—if a little early. He didn’t get called for the penalty.
Not only can Igwebuike cover up the middle against tight ends in the seam, but he can run with wide receivers out in the flat, too. This is a fantastic read in which Igwebuike knows the down and distance situation—3rd and 6—and ensures that even if the Illinois player were to catch the ball, he wouldn’t be close to picking up the first. The pass breakup is just an added bonus.
Igwebuike’s combination of natural football instincts, speed and sure tackling have impressed NFL scouts, and though Igwebuike will only be a redshirt junior in 2016, he has drawn solid reviews to play at the next level. It would take a monster 2016 campaign for him to leave early, and thankfully for Northwestern fans, he doesn’t seem too interested on keeping close tabs on his pro prospects.
“I probably look at the rankings a lot less then you might expect,” he said. “I usually hear it from other people. I hear good things here and there, but I’m not really worried about that.”
The standout safety is focused on the present. With Walker lined up in front of him and Matthew Harris often nearby, Northwestern will present another major challenge when it comes to moving the football through the air or on the ground.
“I’m out there to win a Big Ten championship,” Igwebuike concluded. “I’m more worried about the team’s success than my success. If the team plays well, all the other stuff is gonna take care of itself.”