By T. Scott Boatright
Christmas is all about being home for the holidays in the place you belong.
Former Ruston Bearcats and Alabama Crimson Tide defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs will be spending the holidays with the Detroit Lions, where he’s found a home and has made a big impact in recent weeks.
Buggs and the Lions have put themselves in the thick of the NFC playoff hunt at 7-7 and will play the road again at noon on Christmas Eve against the Carolina Panthers.
A sixth-round pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2019 draft, Buggs played in 29 games in three years with the Steelers, recording 31 tackles before being released in January.
He was quickly picked up by Las Vegas and signed to the Raiders practice squad. But shortly before NFL training camps for 2022 began, Buggs was signed by the Lions on July 22.
It didn’t take Buggs long to find his place under the guidance of a pair of former New Orleans Saints assistant coaches — Lions head coach Dan Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn.
“It’s been great since I’ve joined the Lions — it really is like we’re a family,” Buggs said during a Wednesday afternoon phone interview. “I fit in with them and their system, and the personalities of the coaches and the other players fit in with me.
“The coaches there played the game, so they can relate to players. Just being on this team with these coaches and these players is something special, and I feel very fortunate.”
Buggs, who was maybe better known as “Pooh Bear” or simply “Pooh” during his high school days, has made his home in Alabama now but says he’d still like to get back to Ruston to catch a basketball game on the floor he played on as a two-time All-State basketball player.”
“I get down there every now and then and maybe I’ll try to catch a basketball game,” Buggs said. “I like coming back for those.”
He followed Ruston High School’s recent run all the way to the recent Division I Nonselect School state championship game at the Superdome in New Orleans.
‘“I kept up with them this season and they did a magnificent job,” Buggs said. “(RHS head football coach Jerrod) Baugh, and ‘Coach Chub’ (offensive coordinator Earl Griffin) and Coach (Kai) Burrell and all those guys over there keep in contact with me and I keep in contact with them.
“They did a great job over there this year and made history even though they didn’t win the state championship. But they still won by accomplishing stuff that hadn’t been accomplished in years, so I give a big shout out to Ruston High School and the Ruston Bearcats.”
But for now, Buggs is strictly focused on his role on the defensive line of the Lions, who have won three straight and find themselves in the thick of the NFC Wild Card race with three games remaining.
“We can go far but we just focus on one game at a time one day at a time,” Buggs said. “We don’t focus too far ahead. We just focus on right now.”
Buggs has appeared in all 14 games this season for the Lions, with 30-plus snaps in each game. He has 32 tackles along with nine quarterback hurries and one forced fumble so far this season, with a sack made two weeks ago in an upset of the Minnesota Vikings being the first of his career.
The Vikings had a first-and-goal situation at the Lions’ three-yard line when Minnesota tried a little trickeration by having running back Dalvin Cook attempt a jump pass — something Cook is known to do — to a tight end.
But the instincts Buggs first developed at L.J. “Hoss” Garrett Stadium kicked in, and the former Bearcat blasted Cook, forcing a fumble recovered by the Lions’ Kirby Jones.
“We smelled a rat,” Buggs was reported to have said by multiple sources during a postgame interview. “I kinda smelled it at the beginning. They (were) doing a lot of talking and I kinda smelled it out. I had to alert the line, let them know what was going on and then just went and made a play.”
Buggs said that ability at the NFL level was always in him just waiting for the right opportunity and moment to be released.
“I always had that in me,” Buggs said. “But just getting around another group of guys that you relate to, and with a great coaching staff, has helped bring it out. Detroit is a great area and has put together a great team, and that’s what it’s all about.”’
Buggs’ efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by Campbell, as the head coach rewarded him Buggs a game ball during the locker room celebration after the win over the Vikings, referring to the Ruston native along with aa couple of other Lions’ players as “glue guys” to describe the willing to do the dirty work that often goes unnoticed.
“If you don’t have enough of those guys, you won’t win in this league and you need a certain amount you certainly need the guys that can give you some juice over the top and all those things as well,” Campbell said. “But man, if you don’t have the guys that are just 100% unselfish, do exactly what they’re asked to do. Do all the dirty work, it’s hard to get places. But we do, we’ve got a lot of those guys and we trust a lot of those guys and we value them.
“They play a huge part for us and that — and I think that’s another thing about this team I think is unique. These guys understand, they have a role. They have a role on this team. They have a role when they go into the game and they’ve embraced that. And if each guy does that, usually good things happen. It’s where we’re at.”
Like Campbell, Glenn knows the Lions have found a diamond in the rough in Buggs.
“Well, I’ll tell you what, that guy’s a guy that we’ve been talking about for a while,” Glenn told reporters after the win over the Vikings. “He doesn’t probably get all the praise that he should, but for him to be able to make that play on that stage, at that time in the red zone, was outstanding for him. So, we know how valuable that player is for us.
“He’s found a home. We’re happy with him, and I know for a fact that he’s happy being here. So, we just want to continue to get better with that player and continue to understand exactly what we’re doing. And there’s just a lot more improvement that can happen with that player. So, I’m really excited about that player.”
And Buggs is excited about finding a home for the holidays with a chance at the playoffs at hand.
“I love this team,” Buggs said. “This team is coming together tremendously. We are finding ways to win. And everybody is just buying in, collectively — the coaches, the players, everybody. We’re a family here. And as long as we keep doing that, we’ll continue to win.”
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