IU alum Nick Westbrook-Ikhine knows how to stick as undrafted free agent

Nick Westbrook-Ikhine made sure his phone was fully charged and the ringer was on.

But as the 2020 NFL Draft commenced, the receiver from Indiana knew not to expect a call.

This is draft day for most college prospects. There is hopeful anxiety, wanting that surprise phone call from an NFL team, that emotional welcome to the league of their dreams. But those hopes are tempered with a rational understanding of how this day usually works. After a couple of 500-plus-yard seasons at IU, with no pro day workout because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Westbrook-Ikhine knew he was most likely a late-round pick. If anything.

That phone was going to be awfully still.

So as the first, second, and third rounds went, Westbrook-Ikhine went riding bikes with his girlfriend. Through the fourth and fifth rounds, his phone was playing episodes of whatever dumb reality baking show he found on Netflix.

Killing time eases nerves. There were frustrations, periodically checking on the selections and seeing other players picked. But Westbrook-Ikhine didn’t hate on the people whose names were called. They deserved it. He just believed he deserved it, too.

As a sophomore at IU, the 6-foot-3, 219-pounder from Lake Mary, Fla., nearly had 1,000 yards receiving. He was an All-Big Ten selection. He thought one more big year, and then he was NFL-bound. A season-ending ACL injury on the opening kickoff of 2017 changed that.

He just had to sit by the television for the seventh round, hearing every name called. Every name but his.

“I’m not mad about it,” Westbrook-Ikhine said. “I feel like it was a good thing I wasn’t drafted. It kept me hungry going into training camp.”

A year later, the Tennessee Titans receiver knows it all works out. The way Westbrook-Ikhine thinks about his ACL tear as a junior — that maybe it was better this way — he holds the same perspective about going undrafted. As long as you don’t lose self-belief, it’s OK to be humbled.

IU’s Stevie Scott, Whop Philyor, Jerome Johnson, and Harry Crider had the same NFL Draft experience just a few days ago. All having signed undrafted free agent deals, they will have the same perilous road as Westbrook-Ikhine, who left preseason practices wondering if a bout of buttery fingers may have cost him a roster spot. But it’s not impossible to overcome. During those low moments, he would remember his time at a training facility in Seattle during the pre-draft process, specifically the words from a current NFL player during a workshop.

“You are meant to be in this league,” Westbrook-Ikhine recalled hearing. “If you weren’t, you wouldn’t even be in this process and potentially getting picked up by a team, having agents, stuff like that. I kind of had that mindset going into camp, I’m meant to be here, and it’s just that I need to prove that to myself more than anything.”

Everyone is talented in the NFL. Some players just find themselves on the right team. Some players make plays in camp. Others don’t.

Drafted or not.

It was just an odd process to make an NFL camp last year. Westbrook-Ikhine’s time at that training facility in Seattle was cut short by the pandemic. He ended up in Florida doing “Rocky” workouts in the parents’ backyard, curling sandbags his father uses to anchor lighting equipment in his photography business.

There was no pro day at IU to show off for NFL scouts. But as the draft neared its conclusion, Westbrook-Ikhine had done enough in five years at IU and an East-West Shrine Bowl to have free-agent suitors. Choosing between the Bills and Titans, he saw the Bills selected Gabriel Davis from UCF in the fourth round of the draft, as well as Oregon State’s Isaiah Hodgins in the sixth.

“I’m going into a hotbed there, where it’s going to be a lot tougher for me to come out on the other side and make the team because they have other guys they’ve already invested a little more money into,” he said.

Tennessee was thinner at receiver. There was a chance.

It was just about seizing the opportunity, however that looks. Last year, there were no rookie minicamps because of the pandemic. But that gave Westbrook-Ikhine more time to sift through the playbook before departing for Nashville. He wrote out the Titans’ play calls onto flashcards for his mom and girlfriend to read out, using his touchscreen laptop to draw out the receivers’ routes.

By the time he arrived in Tennessee, the four-time Academic All-Big Ten selection was all studied up. Westbrook-Ikhine just had to engage with another part of the game that wasn’t very familiar.

Tackling people.

“I knew I was going to have to find my way on special teams to even have a shot,” Westbrook-Ikhine said. “To make the team in the first case, then to be able to make it on the active roster and actually get playing time.”

Luckily, special teams weren’t completely foreign to Westbrook-Ikhine. IU coach Tom Allen may have received some grief for playing someone of Westbrook-Ikhine’s caliber on special teams, especially after his injury. But it’s an important phase. And it’s a phase NFL prospects need to experience to stick in the league.

Westbrook-Ikhine knew what special teams entailed. He just didn’t have a ton of reps tackling returners. Mentally, he just framed it as a cousin to blocking defenders. He just gets to take someone to the ground now, without worrying about a holding call.

There aren’t many “live goes” to tackle in an NFL camp, but Westbrook-Ikhine recalls one rep in an open-field tackling drill, standing five yards away from a runner who would try to make him miss. It went just well enough.

“I pretty much just shoved him really hard,” Westbrook-Ikhine said. “I just remember coaches saying ‘Well, it worked. It’s a tackle, technically.’ They didn’t knock me, but I did wish it was a little bit cleaner so I could impress somebody maybe who didn’t think I could do it.”

Even with a few too many drops in camp as a receiver, Westbrook-Ikhine did enough on special teams to make the Titans’ practice squad. By the time the first game rolled around, he was called up to the active roster.

Westbrook-Ikhine believed he was good enough to make the NFL, but he still had a few “pinch me” moments as a rookie. A lifelong Packers fan, he was on the kickoff team to open a December contest at Lambeau Field. A picturesque coating of white snow was beneath his feet.

“I was thinking to myself ‘Holy trap,’” Westbrook-Ikhine said, editing his language. ”I remember watching these snow games in Lambeau. They are so cool. Now I’m actually in one.

“Once that game was kicked off, I realized I have a job to do. But there were moments between games, there’s lulls, where it does hit you.”

He made a few memorable plays in 2020, as well. In a Week 11 contest at Baltimore, the Titans snuck backup quarterback Logan Woodside onto the field as an up-man on punt team. He rolled out and hit Westbrook-Ikhine on a comeback route for a first down.

Four weeks later, Westbrook-Ikhine was out with the punt return unit when the Lions tried some trickery. On a fake, Westbrook-Ikhine tracked a Detroit up-man speeding toward the sideline. This time, he did more than just push him out. He chased the runner like a linebacker, driving a shoulder through his hip and stopping him short of the first down. It was probably Westbrook-Ikhine’s first open-field tackle since freshman year of high school.

Those kinds of plays have gained Westbrook-Ikhine some fans in Nashville. But his favorite moment of 2020 is still a catch. On a two-point try versus the Texans, Westbrook-Ikhine found himself running across the back of the end zone, wide open. Ryan Tannehill put it on his hands.

Westbrook-Ikhine’s mitts were as sure as ever. He tapped both toes in the end zone, just inbounds.

“That was pretty special for me to have, being an undrafted guy in my rookie year, to be able to have an impact,” Westbrook-Ikhine said. “I remember before the season started, when I would go into the meetings with scouts in the pre-draft process, whenever they asked my goals, it would be to make an impact on the success of a team and have a tangible impact on helping them win games. That’s one example of it.”

No longer an undrafted rookie, Westbrook-Ikhine will continue to get chances. There has been buzz about the former Hoosier possibly seeing more reps at outside receiver in 2021. Tennessee drafted just one more wideout this past weekend, a sixth-rounder, LSU’s Racey McMath.

There will be competition, but that’s just the NFL. There is always someone rising up from the college ranks, hoping to make their dreams a reality, whether they got a phone call on draft day or not.

This year, a handful of Hoosiers watched and waited and didn’t have their names called. But the words Westbrook-Ikhine kept close to his heart, he would share with Scott, Philyor, Crider, and Jerome Johnson.

“The biggest thing is that you do belong,” Westbrook-Ikhine said. “There shouldn’t be any sort of imposter syndrome or anything like that … but it’s up to you to prove that and earn that spot.

“If it’s a practice squad spot, be blessed and happy with that spot. But don’t settle for less.”

2 comments

  1. Westbrook is a very good example for the Hoosiers hoping to make an NFL team this season. Everyone is talented enough but it take perseverance and determination to find your spot and stick with a team. Good luck Hoosiers and if playing in the NFL is your dream, you now have your shot.

  2. Westbrook’s knee injury prevented him from being drafted. He had the size and experience, but no NFL teams wanted to take a risk on his knees. Glad it’s working out for him now.

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