The losses of Nick Holt and Dejon Brown at linebacker following the 2015 season created such an opportunity for local product Joel Iyiegbuniwe that the WKU media guide described the redshirt sophomore as a "potential star" for the rebuilt Hilltopper defense this fall.
Despite being slowed by injury during his first two seasons on The Hill, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound South Warren alum displayed flashes of strong play when he had the opportunity to be on the field. He saw his rookie year cut short after just three games and was granted a redshirt season. He became a key contributor on special teams and as a reserve linebacker during the 2015 Conference USA title season, finishing with 19 tackles, including his first career sack at North Texas.
Iyiegbuniwe joined returning starter T.J. McCollum and graduate transfer Keith Brown as WKU's starting linebackers. In the team's home-opener against Rice, he recorded just a pair of tackles, one for a loss. As the team prepped for its trip to top-ranked Alabama, the WKU coaching staff leaned on Iyiegbuniwe. They wanted and team would need more from their new starter.
"I felt good," he said following the road game. "I had a good week in practice. We had an emphasis on making sure I'd be ready, so I think it paid off."
He presence was notable against the Crimson Tide. He registered his second career sack during the first quarter, bringing Jalen Hurts to the turf to force an Alabama punt. He finished as the team's leading tackler with 10 total stops, including seven solo.
"He's done a very good job," WKU head coach Jeff Brohm said after the game. "He's a smart, athletic player and he can run. He's been nicked up the last couple of years, but he's healthy now and I think he's going to be a big-time play-maker for us. I like the fact that he competed hard and played well in this game."
Now the focus turns to consistency. Despite the loss, Iyiegbuniwe will need to use his personal performance as a springboard his potential into constant reality.
"I think it's good for me to build on that in the upcoming weeks, so I think its good for me," he said. "We'll see where it goes."