Vikings linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. started to turn heads as soon as he stepped foot onto the practice field at TCO Performance Center in the spring. Never mind that he was an undrafted rookie out of the University of Cincinnati at the time. The 22-year-old was hellbent on proving he belonged with the Vikings.
After impressing enough people to make the team out of training camp, Pace continued to stack days on top of each other, eventually carving out a role for himself on defense. Meanwhile, head coach Kevin O’Connell remembers waiting for Pace to hit that rookie wall
“You’re just kind of waiting for, ‘When’s that drop-off going to be? When are those times where he’s going to look like a rookie?’ ” O’Connell said. “It just never really happened.”
That’s good news for the Vikings considering Pace has stepped into an important role on defense in the absence of injured veteran linebacker Jordan Hicks.
Now every time Pace trots onto the field, he does so as the only player with a direct line of communication to defensive coordinator Brian Flores.
There’s a headset built into his helmet — denoted by a green dot on the back — so Pace can get the play call from Flores on the sideline. As soon as he does, Pace is in charge of relaying the information to the rest of the defense, then making the necessary checks at the line of scrimmage.
“It’s not really hard,” Pace said. “It’s just about staying confident.”
That’s a big thing for Pace as he has to take control of a huddle that features some very respected players, including veteran safety Harrison Smith and star pass rusher Danielle Hunter, among a handful of others. He slowly has started to grow into his voice over the past few months.
“I started out as a shy person on the team who really didn’t talk that much,” Pace said. “Just knowing I was going to take on the green-dot role, I had to open up a little bit, get used to my teammates and be loud.”
It’s been a pretty seamless transition for Pace, who has played 100 percent of the snaps on defense since Hicks went on injured reserve.
“This will go a long way for him and his future in this league,” Flores said. “I think his confidence is growing each time he goes out there with the green dot. He understands that responsibility and what goes with that. He’s starting to elevate his play in large part because of that.”
Though it seems as if Hicks might be able to return sooner rather than later — and more than likely would reclaim the green dot in the process — the experience has been invaluable for Pace as he continues to prove himself as player who could be a key piece of the Vikings’ defense in the future.
” I’m excited about him,” O’Connell said. “He just keeps getting better and better and more comfortable. Now he’s the green dot and communicating throughout the whole defense. You can’t put an amount on that as far as the importance in his development and where he’s going to get to.”
Vikings at Raiders picks: What happens in Vegas belongs in the win column
Vikings at Raiders: What to know ahead of Week 14 matchup
How the Vikings grew without Justin Jefferson and the domino effect of his return
The Loop NFL Picks: Week 14
Vikings star receiver Justin Jefferson adjusts goals after returning from hamstring injury