Donald Igwebuike played six seasons in the NFL as a placekicker, making a living off his right foot. His first cousin once removed, Godwin Igwebuike is now trying to make it in the same league at a vastly different position. The latter member of the Igwebuike clan, a Northwestern safety who signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an undrafted rookie earlier this month, hopes to eventually crack the team's defensive lineup. That said, the younger Igwebuike's best shot at getting his foot in the NFL's door is the same thing that gave his predecessor an opportunity: the kicking game.
It's a lesson many young prospects trying to win roster spots have to learn upon arriving at their first NFL home: The best way to stick around long enough to get a shot at your position on offense or defense is to become invaluable to the club on special teams. Igwebuike, who has seen several former Northwestern players excel in that capacity and thereby build good NFL careers, arrived in Tampa with that knowledge already at the front of his mind.
"No doubt about it," he said. "I know a couple guys from that team, like my boy Brian Peters, who's made a living off that. When it comes down to it, you make your mark on special teams, you show what you've got there, and then you've got to seize your opportunities at your actual position."
View photos from the second day of the Buccaneers' 2018 Rookie Mini-Camp.
Most NFL teams, no matter how successful they have been, turn over 20-30% of the roster from one season to the next. Even if the starting lineups on offense and defense only see minor changes in any given campaign, the special teams are sure to be affected in a big way. Whichever young players make this year's roster, they will almost certainly be asked to help out on special teams. Igwebuike is not only willing, he's looking forward to it, and he thinks he can make a big impact in that part of the game.
"I'm more than willing to go out there and make a name for myself on special teams," he said. "Just be a monster. Earn my spot on that 53-man roster, get settled in and then continue to work from there."
It would be fitting if he did so in Tampa, as that would be another thing he'd have in common with the man he calls his uncle (Donald is actually the cousin of Godwin's father, Leo). The NFL's first Igwebuike also played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, handling all their placekicking duties from 1985-89 before finishing his career as a Minnesota Viking in 1990. That didn't necessarily steer his decision to come to Tampa when he was presented with a number of potential NFL destinations after the draft – that's an actual advantage that undrafted players have over their late-round counterparts – but he's excited by the connection.
It doesn't hurt, either, that Leo lives about 90 minutes away from One Buccaneer Place, which actually allowed him to visit last weekend and watch his son take part in his very first NFL practice.
"It's definitely an added bonus, having a chance to continue the Igwebuike legacy in this area, the Tampa area," said the younger Igwebuike. "Actually, my Dad lives pretty close to here. I live in Columbus, so to be close to him is pretty cool. Honestly, I think this is the perfect place for me, and getting that added bonus of it being the same team he played on is another thing in itself."
View photos from the first day of the Buccaneers' 2018 Rookie Mini-Camp.
Undrafted prospects who get interest from multiple teams weigh a lot of factors when choosing which offer to accept. The size of the signing bonus is a worthwhile consideration, though it's likely that most young players take a longer view and focus more on the size of the opportunity to make the roster. The Buccaneers did draft a safety, Pittsburgh's Jordan Whitehead, in the fourth round this year but it's clear that the secondary is getting a pretty extensive makeover. Tampa Bay finished last in the NFL in passing yards allowed in 2017. Even with his initial – and wise – emphasis on special teams, Igwebuike could reasonably see a chance to make a long-term home in the Bucs' defense.
He can also see many, many players before him who have gone from undrafted status to key roles on the Buccaneers' roster. Before the draft brought in a new crop of hopefuls, Tampa Bay already had 33 players on its offseason roster who had entered the league as undrafted free agents, including such key contributors as Adam Humphries, Cameron Brate, Demar Dotson and Peyton Barber.
What really convinced Igwebuike to follow in his 'uncles' footsteps in Tampa, however, was how committed the Buccaneers appeared to be to him. In the hours after the final round of the draft, when the coveted rookie free agents are getting calls from assorted scouts and assistant coaches, it was Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht himself who got on the phone with Igwebuike.
"There were some other teams – a good amount of teams, honestly – that called but I think the Bucs showed a level of interest that went far and beyond what other teams had," he said. "I had scouts hitting me up, but to actually get on the phone with the G.M. here and to talk to him personally and hear his side of things, that really sent a message to me. It's an opportunity to help the defense out, help the secondary out, I knew I could, and also just I could be a monster special teams player. Put all those things together for an opportunity to get on the field somewhere, at some point, sealed the deal for me."