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Isaiah McDuffie exemplifies 'starter in waiting' mentality

Third-year linebacker has done it all for Packers this season

LB Isaiah McDuffie
LB Isaiah McDuffie

GREEN BAY – Football is football to Isaiah McDuffie.

He could be starting, coming off the bench or playing only on special teams. It's all the same to the Packers' third-year linebacker. If McDuffie is on the field, he's a happy man.

"Any opportunity I get, I just try to make the most out of it," said McDuffie earlier this week. "I just feel as a linebacker you have to have that tenacious physicality and that's the mentality and approach I have. When I get to the ball carrier, I want to leave my impression on him."

That's been McDuffie's M.O. in Green Bay since the Packers drafted the 6-foot-1, 227-pound linebacker in the sixth round out of Boston College in 2021.

In two short years, McDuffie has gone from a developmental prospect to a stalwart on Rich Bisaccia's special teams to now playing the key role of next linebacker up behind All-Pro De'Vondre Campbell and former first-round pick Quay Walker.

McDuffie racked up 35 tackles (23 solo) during a four-game stretch when Campbell was sidelined with an ankle injury earlier this season. The third-year veteran then made a late-notice start on Sunday after Walker developed a groin injury midweek that ultimately sidelined him against the Los Angeles Rams.

"It's been really good (having) Isaiah coming in when Quay and D.C. have been out," defensive lineman Kenny Clark said. "He's been coming in and there's been no drop-off. He's hitting the gaps, controlling things. There are times when he has to make the calls at times. He's well prepared for everything."

In addition to playing 14 special-teams snaps, McDuffie made seven tackles (two for a loss) while playing 54 of the Packers' 58 defensive snaps in a 20-3 victory over the Rams.

Both McDuffie TFLs contributed to Green Bay defensive stops, including his tackle of Royce Freeman for a 5-yard loss from the Packers' 29 that helped push LA out of field-goal range.

It's business over bravado for McDuffie, the son of a football coach who lives and breathes the sport. A "see-ball, hit-ball" tackler, McDuffie has no issue letting his play do his talking.

In spot duty the past two seasons, he has quietly amassed 73 tackles (48 solo) on just 432 snaps over 25 games (five starts).

"The thing I've grown to really enjoy about Isaiah is that you might go a week and you might not hear the dude talk," defensive coordinator Joe Barry said. "But he's consistent every single day with the way he works and the way he grinds and the way he prepares."

Barry mentions it wasn't an overnight process for McDuffie, whose play needed a little reservicing at first. Special teams turned out to be a good proving ground and nobody has played there more than McDuffie and his 584 snaps since 2021.

One of the first things Bisaccia did after being hired to recalibrate Green Bay's special teams in 2022 was watch all of McDuffie's tape. What he found on film was an extremely focused, detailed, and hungry young man.

McDuffie, who tied for the team lead with 13 coverage tackles last year, has developed into a core-four player for Green Bay. While Bisaccia took McDuffie off punt returns last Sunday to balance out his snaps, the third-year veteran still played on most of Green Bay's special-teams units against the Rams.

"He's a bright football player, so we try to manage him a little bit when we can," Bisaccia said. "Credit to him that he's able to be in that supreme physical condition to do both of those things and do it at a high level. I'm excited for what he's doing on defense, and he's been that way for us for two years now on special teams."

Believe it or not, McDuffie is actually the longest-tenured inside linebacker on the Packers' roster. He was drafted six weeks before Campbell signed with Green Bay near the end of the 2021 offseason program.

Invaluable and versatile, McDuffie could again be called upon against Pittsburgh if Walker is unable to go. The second-year linebacker sat out of practice both Wednesday and Thursday.

If that's the case, the Packers know McDuffie will be ready.

"No other player (better) exemplifies the 'Hey, you're a starter in waiting,'" Barry said. "Because we've had 'Dre go down for periods of time and Isaiah's had to fill in for 'Dre. We've had Quay go down and he's had to fill in for Quay.

"With him, it's just consistency in his process, the way he works every single day as a pro. To me, that's been the coolest thing watching him."

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