Vikings' Pace, back in No. 0, hoping to take a ‘bigger step’ in Year 2

Linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. burst onto the scene last season as one of the Vikings' biggest surprises. Now that he's starting to feel a little more comfortable in the NFL, the second-year undrafted defender is looking to take another step forward as a starter under defensive coordinator Brian Flores.

Pace has an added layer of comfort in his old uniform number, changing from No. 40 to No. 0 this offseason, which he wore during an award-winning college career at Cincinnati and Miami of Ohio.

"It's a dream come true, man," Pace said after Wednesday's practice at TCO Performance Center. "I came into the league wanting zero, then Marcus [Davenport] came and got it. Then now he gone and I got it, so I got to wear it with pride."

Pace remains a starter in the middle of a remade Vikings defense that includes new linebackers alongside him. He's expected to start next to Blake Cashman, the Eden Prairie and Gophers product who signed a three-year free-agent deal in March. The Vikings also signed veteran linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill and lost special teamer Troy Dye to the Chargers.

Cashman is expected to replace linebacker Jordan Hicks, who signed with the Browns in free agency.

"We're running a couple different things on defense, trying out some things," Pace said. "It ain't much change because when Jordan went down, I had to step up. So, it's pretty much the same as when he was down. But now that he's gone, I got to take a bigger step up and move up."

At the end of last season, Pace gained valuable experience replacing Hicks, who was sidelined for about a month because of a contusion that caused compartment syndrome in his shin. Pace was the defensive signal-caller, relaying play calls in the huddle to veteran teammates.

"Taking control of the defense," he said. "It's basically like being a coach out there on the field."

Pace finished the season with 102 tackles (63 solo), ranking fourth on the team, along with 2.5 sacks, two pass deflections and a forced fumble. He was an immediate difference-maker as a run defender and blitzer.

His second-year focus has been to cover more ground: "footwork, coverage [and] my eyes; seeing everything" on the field, he said.

Vikings coaches train multiple linebackers to wear the "green dot" helmet with a microphone and relay plays, but Pace made his pitch to get the job for this upcoming season.

"I know they brought in a couple linebackers that got more experience and stuff," Pace said, "but if they trust me enough to have the green dot, I'm ready for it."

One of McCown's 'five good plays'

New Vikings quarterbacks coach Josh McCown has been on the job for three months, and he's already heard from purple faithful about that play that ended the 2003 Vikings season. McCown was a second-year quarterback with the Arizona Cardinals, making his third NFL start for a 3-12 team when the Vikings came to town looking for a win to secure a playoff spot.

On fourth-and-25, McCown rolled out and threw a game-winning, 28-yard touchdown pass to receiver Nate Poole in the corner of the end zone as time expired. The Vikings had started 6-0 that season but finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs.

"It's funny," McCown said Wednesday. "Somebody will grab me in the airport, and they'll say, 'Welcome to Minnesota.' And they'll say, 'Hey, wait a minute.' It's like the longer we talk, the more they think about it, and then it's not so pleasant. They're like, 'Wait a minute, hold on, man.' And I'm like, 'All right, yeah, it happened.' "

"But you know, again, through the course of my career, there's only like five good plays, and that's one of them, so let me have it." McCown added. "But no, it's been cool. It was a crazy moment back then, but it's cool to be here now and a part of this organization."