Ivan Pace Jr. established himself as one of the top defensive players in the MAC two years ago.
For Miami (OH), Pace Jr. earned first-team all-conference honors following a season where he posted a league-leading 125 tackles. Shortly after, the linebacker chose to transfer and decided to suit up for his hometown Cincinnati Bearcats in the 2022 campaign.
Pace Jr. built on that past success during his lone season with the Bearcats. He was tabbed the AAC Defensive Player of the Year and earned unanimous All-American status — the first such honor for a player in program history. The senior finished the season with a conference-high 137 tackles and posted 10 sacks. He also racked up 21.5 tackles for loss and 53 QB pressures.
Continuing to make himself known as one of the premier defenders in the country, Pace Jr. finished the year with a 16-tackle, one-sack performance against Louisville in the Fenway Bowl. Two weeks later, he decided to forgo his final year of eligibility and enter the NFL Draft.
So, what does this mean for Pace Jr. as April nears?
As of right now, he’s expected to be a third-day selection. One of the biggest concerns that teams might have about Pace Jr. is his size. At 6-foot, 235 pounds, he is undersized for his position.
Of his traits that have allowed him to counter this downfall, his instincts have been the most notable:
Pace Jr. excels in his rush defense and he also utilizes his strength to finish off plays. His ability to get to the quarterback is also tremendous — especially when schemed for. Pro Football Focus ranks Pace Jr. as the No. 1 linebacker in the FBS with a grade of 93.2. With his tackle numbers as evidence, Pace Jr. has a nose for the ball and can do a lot of damage when blitzing.
Another area that is pushing Pace Jr. down draft boards is his coverage tends to lag behind other top linebackers. He also doesn’t have very long arms, which will make it difficult for him to get off blocks against bigger linemen in the NFL.
While a menace at the FBS ranks and having intensity and energy that allows him to make plays, he tends to be overaggressive and doesn’t take the greatest angles during his pursuits. The cons to his game weren’t a huge deal in college but will limit him at the next level.
Good thing for Pace Jr., though, he still has a couple of chances to garner some more intrigue at the Senior Bowl next weekend and at the Draft Combine in March. He’s not on this list, but he’s definitely looking to try and earn himself some more money with a quality performance in Mobile.
Some of the downsides to his game are permanent, such as his height and arm length, but Pace Jr. has talent and the will to become a key contributor on a defense in the future. He may not be Arkansas’ Drew Sanders or Clemson’s Trenton Sampson, but he’s one of the top 10 linebackers in the draft and has the potential to be in the mix for the top five.
He posted his best games of the season against the Bearcats’ best opponents. This gives me the idea that Pace Jr. comes to play when it’s most necessary, and won’t struggle to handle the challenges that come with adjusting to an NFL roster.