Isaiah and Dylan McDuffie are first cousins, but they say they might as well have been twins. They were born eight months apart and were inseparable as young boys, bonded by family and an abiding love for the sport of football.
All the men in the older generation of McDuffies played the sport, three of them for the University at Buffalo. Isaiah’s dad, Steve, later became a coach and has been the successful head man at Bennett High for the last decade.
The boys were fixtures at the local games when their older family members played and coached. They would get lost behind the bleachers and sometimes run onto the field. They shared a dream about one day going to the NFL.
“We talked about it all the time,” Isaiah said Monday from Green Bay, where the Packers began their off-season workout program.
Isaiah realized the family dream last year when he became the first McDuffie to play in the NFL. On Sunday, Dylan took a step that he believes moves him closer to the dream, announcing that he was transferring from UB to Georgia Tech for the 2022 season.
The decision was a difficult one for McDuffie, who originally entered the NCAA transfer portal on Dec. 31, then withdrew his name at the end of January before re-entering the portal at the start of April.
Last season, McDuffie began as UB’s backup running back, behind Kevin Marks. But he emerged as the main man and finished with 1,049 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns. He had 700 yards in the last six games alone, and the Bulls would likely have built the offense around him in Maurice Linguist’s second season as head coach.
“It definitely was hard to leave,” McDuffie said Monday. “I’ve got a lot of love for Coach Mo and the program as a whole. I’ve got a lot of faith that they’re going to get a MAC championship this year, without question. Being around them since Coach Mo has been there, just the energy he brings to the building and the type of players he brought in, I know that’s going to be a special team.”
Ultimately, the prospect of showcasing his skills at a higher level was too much to pass up. McDuffie attracted interest from a number of Power Five schools. Virginia made an offer early this month. He said he had an official visit planned to Oklahoma State, which was high on his list of suitors.
But he’s headed to Atlanta, where he’ll be reunited with former UB running backs coach Mike Daniels at Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets hired Daniels to coach their running backs in late December after he spent one year in Buffalo.
“Coach Daniels was definitely a big part of it,” McDuffie said, “but I feel like Georgia Tech was everything I was looking for. It made a lot of sense, all in all. Coach Daniels being there was obviously a big plus.”
The big lure, though, was playing at a higher level. It’s not as if the pro scouts aren’t aware of Buffalo. Khalil Mack came out of UB and became an NFL star. James Starks was a Bull and became the top rusher in a Super Bowl. Jaret Patterson, who played ahead of McDuffie two years ago, played 17 games in his rookie season for Washington.
Still, the scouts like to judge a prospect against the very best in college football. Georgia Tech plays in the ACC and has games this season against four schools that finished in the top 15 of the final AP poll last season: national champion Georgia, Ole Miss, Clemson and Pittsburgh.
“That was a really big factor, honestly,” Dylan McDuffie said. “That’s what college football is about, playing the best competition, week in and week out, going out there and showing that there’s not really much of a difference between my play in the MAC and the ACC.”
The two cousins remain close, and they spoke often as McDuffie was contemplating whether to leave UB and where to finish his college career (he has two seasons of eligibility left due to the NCAA granting athletes an extra year because of the COVID-19 pandemic).
“Isaiah is one of the people who was in the circle when we made this decision,” Dylan said. “He’s like my brother more than my cousin. He was here for every step of this decision. He just told me follow my heart.”
“It was hard for him to make that decision,” Isaiah said. “There’s so much history with UB, with the family and him having the year he did. But this is something he felt he had to do, and I had his back 100 percent.
“I’m happy for him. I felt it was the right decision, the best thing for him, especially to get to the next level. The end goal is the NFL. He’s playing with the big boys.”
Isaiah played with the big guys at Boston College, an ACC school. He played against Georgia Tech as a senior. No offense to the MAC, but the overall competition is stiffer. He looked at Tech’s upcoming schedule and was excited to know that his cousin could perform against some elite college foes.
“It (the ACC) is definitely different,” Isaiah said. “But I watched the way he works. I watched the amount of time he puts in. I can guarantee there’s not going to be any drop-off. I can just tell he’s so motivated and he’s ready to work, work, work.
“If you do that, you’re going to see results. So I’m just ecstatic. It’s going to be really fun watching him.”
McDuffie will battle for playing time with the Yellow Jackets. Dontae Smith is seen as the favorite to be the lead back. Georgia Tech brought in another transfer at running back, Hassan Hall of Louisville.
Of course, competing for touches is nothing new for McDuffie, who was a reserve in his first two seasons for the Bulls and had just one carry in 2020 as Paterson and Marks led UB’s record-setting rushing attack.
“I always knew what I was capable of,” Dylan said. “It was just about getting an opportunity to show it. I just had to keep working. I kept working and just stayed the course and took it a day at a time. It was about staying consistent in my work ethic, honestly.
“You never know when it’s going to work, when it’s going to take off. You can’t shy away from working hard, just because it didn’t work out the next day or exactly when you wanted.”
McDuffie said he’s finishing his degree at UB and training for next season. His degree will be in social sciences with an emphasis on early childhood education. He hasn’t decided what he’ll study at a graduate student at Georgia Tech.
The hope is that he’ll build on last season’s fantastic finish, become a featured back in the ACC and get some NFL team to take a chance on him. One McDuffie achieved the dream and made it to the league, why not another?
“It’s crazy to think about how close he is,” Isaiah said of his cousin. “Choosing to go to Georgia Tech is another step on the journey to get to the next level. I’m really proud of him.
“I can’t wait to watch him at Georgia Tech, watch him kill it.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.