Saturday Will Be Double Sweet for Ivan Pace

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports.

Ivan Pace’s NFL journey has been a real fairytale.

He went from undrafted to star linebacker within just eight months. Receiving hype all offseason, Pace showed his abilities in training camp and the preseason, earning a major role in Brian Flores’ defense, making expected breakout sophomore Brian Asamoah an afterthought.

Saturday Will Be Double Sweet for Ivan Pace

Most draft pundits regarded Pace as a mid-round draft pick as he played incredibly well in his final college season, earning unanimous All-American honors after recording 137 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, and 10 sacks. The one caveat that had him fall in the draft? He is only 5’10 and 231 lbs; at least that’s what he is listed at.

Saturday Will Be Double Sweet for Ivan Pace
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports.

However, that limited size was not an issue in college, and it hasn’t been a problem in the NFL. All he does is make plays. Through 13 games, he has logged 68 tackles and 2.5 sacks, in addition to ruining many plays by blowing up blockers that don’t show up in the stat sheets.

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Pace immediately became a fan favorite with his high-intensity play, always going all-in on every play. He has also taken over as the green-dot player, replacing Jordan Hicks as the player who makes defensive calls and audibles, which is extremely unusual for a rookie but shows his football IQ.

The rookie will have a cool experience when the Vikings take on the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday. Pace was born and grew up in Cincinnati, and he spent his final college year at the University of Cincinnati after transferring there from Miami (OH). Family members and friends of him will likely fill a significant portion of the stands. Saturday will also be Pace’s 23rd birthday, so there will be even more reason for celebration.

Summer Sensation
Cincinnati Bearcats linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. (0) jogs back to the locker room after pregame ceremonies recognizing seniors on the roster before the first quarter during a college football game against the Tulane Green Wave, Friday, Nov. 25, 2022, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. © Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK.

Pace was asked about when he realized he deserved to play in the NFL:

I don’t know. I always had that dog in me, man. Coming into the NFL and then just knowing I got a chance to play because I was an undrafted rookie, just getting the chance knowing that I have to show them that got that dog in me. They can’t see it on the outside, but I got it in me and I’m going to show it to them.

Ivan Pace

The first thing he did after signing with the Vikings was send out a message to the league, adding a post of the signing on his Instagram story with a threatening announcement.

y'all done up ivan pace

And eight months into his NFL career, it is fair to say that he was right. He landed in the perfect spot as Brian Flores is using his skill set to perfection. A blitzing Pace is scary for offenses, but he has also been excellent at defending the run and in coverage.

Pro Football Focus ranks the rookie as the 13th-best of 80 eligible linebackers in the league with top-ten grades in both coverage and pass-rush. His size can be an issue in the physical running game when a large player gets his hands on him, but he makes up for it with effort and a nose for the ball.

Pace is also coming off the best game of his young career, in which he recorded a sack to end the first half and an interception to seal the game, as well as 13 tackles. That dominance resulted in the NFC Defensive Player of the Week award.

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

It is fascinating that 32 NFL teams, including the Vikes, watched his college tape, interviewed him in the pre-draft process, tracked his measurements, and still ended up passing on him for 259 draft picks. Those measurements were poor, both in explosiveness and size, but the college production was outstanding, and the effort can’t be denied. He also had a great Senior Bowl. Still, he fell, motivating the linebacker even more to prove everyone wrong.

It is still early in his career, and it remains to be seen how Flores’ eventual successor will use him, but he surely looks like a cornerstone of the franchise, someone who is consistently overcoming his limitations.

A victory on Saturday would be a nice birthday present for him, even adding to the reasons for the celebration.

Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. The Vikings became his favorite team despite their quarterback at the time, Christian Ponder. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt