Massachusetts Daily Collegian

From two DI offers to the NFL draft, Andy Isabella’s journey is a long one

UMass’ leading receiver is on the brink of another milestone

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From two DI offers to the NFL draft, Andy Isabella’s journey is a long one

Photo from the UMass Football Page

Photo from the UMass Football Page

Photo from the UMass Football Page

Photo from the UMass Football Page

By Thomas Haines, Collegian Staff

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Coming out of Mayfield, Ohio as a running back and track star, Andy Isabella had only two Division I offers to play football – Air Force Academy and the University of Massachusetts. Reluctant to take on the post-graduation commitment with the Air Force, he signed with UMass three days before signing day, after just one phone call from coach Mark Whipple and without so much as an official visit to the school.

When he finally did visit a couple weeks later, his first impression wasn’t entirely favorable.

“I was like, ‘Wow, the Air Force Academy is way nicer than this,’” Isabella said with a big laugh. “It’s definitely a cool campus… but my first impression was like, ‘Maybe I messed up here.’ But obviously it worked out, I’ve come to love UMass.”

Four years after that visit, four years after being almost entirely overlooked out of high school, Isabella leaves as the most prolific wide receiver in program history and is likely days away from becoming the highest-drafted player to come out of UMass football in the FBS era.

*          *          *

The first attribute anyone mentions about Isabella’s game is his sheer speed.

“On my official visit, before I came to UMass but when I’d decided to come to UMass, I met Andy,” quarterback Andrew Ford said. “Of course, he was in the building, just like he always is. I was hanging out with Coach Whipple and I met Andy, and [Whipple] said he’s the fastest player in the country. And at the time I was like, ‘Okay, sure, he’s fast, but I don’t know about that.’ Coach Whipple wasn’t lying. Later that summer when I got to UMass and finally got to work with him, I knew he was telling the truth.”

Three years later, Isabella proved it to the rest of the country, running a 4.31-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, just .02 off the fastest time of the day and .09 short of the record.

“His speed is different,” receiver Sadiq Palmer said. “He’s fast – he’s faster than that time he ran at the combine, too.”

It was that speed that got Whipple’s attention early in 2015, as Isabella was finishing up his senior year of high school. Not even a blip on the radar as a running back, Isabella was making more waves as a short-distance runner in indoor track.

“We saw his 60-meter time was the fastest in the country and we needed speed at UMass,” Whipple said. “We lacked some overall speed. So I talked to him on the phone, wanted to bring him in for a visit on the weekend before signing day, but he had another obligation – I think it might’ve been academics, I don’t remember what it was – but I said ‘Hey, we’ll send you the papers. I want you and we’ll bring you and your family up next week. So he signed.”

Recruited primarily for his speed, Isabella was blocked on the depth chart at running back by fellow incoming freshman Marquis Young, who went on to rack up over 3600 yards and 29 touchdowns for the Minutemen. Looking to get faster on offense, Whipple decided to move the undersized running back to receiver.

“They were really showing signs that they were never going to play me at running back, just because I was so small,” Isabella said. “So I was like, ‘Well, if I want to play, I’ve got to go to receiver.’ I didn’t mind. It was fun, because you don’t get hit as much, you don’t get beat up. So I was like, ‘Hey, you want to move me to receiver? Fine.’”

Freshman year, trying to adjust to a new position as well as college-level football, Isabella played almost exclusively on special teams when he cracked the field at all. He neglected to study the playbook, assuming it would come naturally, and lacked the technical skills to make an impact on offense.

“Freshman year, I was really just able to run fast,” Isabella said. “I didn’t really know how to move around, kind of, or run a route. I was just running in a straight line as fast as I can, and running away from people. So my sophomore year was learning how to get into spaces and basically find out how to run a route and get open, besides just running away from people.”

After finishing his freshman year with just two catches for seven yards, Isabella wavered. Disappointed with his first year in DI football, he joined the spring track team, returning to the sport that had elevated him in high school.

Isabella’s track aspirations were quickly derailed, however, as he pulled a hamstring in his first meet.

“It was kind of disappointing because I hadn’t had the freshman football season that I’d really wanted to have, because I didn’t know the plays and stuff,” Isabella said, “and then I go in track and think, ‘Oh, I’ll make this thing what I’ll do,’ and I pull my hamstring in the first race. So it was like, ‘Dang, two bad seasons in a row.’”

With a month of enforced rest from all his sports, Isabella wondered if his football talents were “just a high school thing.” But he turned his focus to his ultimate goal – playing in the NFL – and what it would take to get there.

*          *          *

Isabella’s speed got him to UMass and turned heads at the combine, but among his coaches and teammates, he garnered more praise for his hard work.

“Always training, whether it be stretching or [practicing],” Ford said. “He had this football, I’d never seen it before. He had this football attached to a piece of string in his apartment that was tied to a door, and he would just sit there while he was watching TV, throw it to himself. I’d never seen that before. But Andy was always doing something to better himself, it was very impressive. It was just kind of – sit back and watch.”

After his disappointing start in college football, Isabella rededicated himself to personal training. He particularly focused on learning the playbook, which he treated “almost like you’re taking another class,” in order to make more of an impact on offense.

The work paid off sophomore year, as Isabella gained over 800 yards and started 10 games. The next year, as a junior, he put up 1,020 yards on 65 receptions.

“After his first 1000-yard season he had, I think his junior year, that’s when he started getting a little swag, talking more and more,” Palmer said. “He was just always working on his craft. Even in the hotel room before the games, he’d be stretching his body. Always working on his body, eating right, never partying.”

That dedication set a standard for work at UMass. Whipple compared it to the impact of Tajae Sharpe, a receiver drafted from the Minutemen after Isabella’s freshman year, and Isabella’s teammates remarked on the visible effect his example had on those around him.

“He was funny, but he always worked,” Palmer said. “He made us compete because he was always trying to be the best, and just naturally made everybody else work a little harder. You’d never see him playing around, talking on the field. Straight business.”

“The younger guys definitely saw him before and after practices, catching extra balls, and you could see the younger guys doing the same thing,” Barr said. “Even being up at UMass after the season, you see the same young guys getting in that extra work and doing the same things that Andy was doing. He’s a great role model for these guys. They see that he’s been very successful at this level, and these kids want to do the same thing. These kids have aspirations of playing in the NFL as well, and they saw firsthand what it takes to be great and to be successful.”

*          *          *

As Isabella got in more reps at wide receiver, his route tree expanded and he grew less dependent on his natural speed and quickness. After the graduation of tight end Adam Breneman following the 2017 season, Isabella stepped in as the centerpiece of the offense.

At that point, heading into his senior year, Isabella was starting to turn heads. Before the year, he appeared on watch-lists for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the top receiver in football, the Paul Hornung award, given to the top all-around contributor, and the Wuerrfel Trophy, given to the top student-athlete and community servant.

While the national media was just starting to notice, Isabella’s teammates were fully confident that he was on the precipice of a monster season.

“Going into this year, I told him, ‘Hey man, this is going to be a big year for you,’” Ford said. “’I really think that if you have the year I think you’re going to, you could creep into the first round, easily second round.’ He always thought I was crazy. He never really wanted to believe he was that true NFL guy, and now he can’t deny it, it’s everywhere you look.”

Isabella started out the season well, with a 100-yard game against Duquesne followed by solid performances against Boston College and Georgia Southern. After a quiet game against Florida International, Whipple decided that he needed to focus more on getting Isabella more involved in the offense.

“We ditched him on a couple things,” Whipple said. “I’ve always believed in getting your best player the ball. I talked to him after that game and said, ‘Hey, I made a mistake, and we’re going to really, really focus on getting the ball to you.’”

After that game, Isabella recorded several big outings, most notably a program-record 303 yards against Liberty on homecoming weekend. Almost all of those 303 yards came in the first three quarters of what became a triple-overtime win.

As the season went along, many scouts who had come to UMass before the season to evaluate Isabella started coming back. Whipple called it similar to 2016, when Sharpe was approaching the draft in his senior year, although he said that the scouting interest was “maybe more so than anyone I’ve ever had.”

Sharpe, the most recent player drafted out of UMass, set a program record for career receiving yards in 2016 before being drafted in the fifth round by the Tennessee Titans. In the final game of 2018, Isabella gained 219 yards to reset that record.

“It was on my mind a little, I’m not going to lie,” Isabella said of the program records he broke in his final year. “But I always pushed it aside, like, ‘No, it’s not going to happen, not going to happen.’ But then it just kept happening, and it was a blessing, almost. I just kept going out there and playing hard, I wasn’t really thinking about it. If you think too much about those things, you start messing yourself up.”

*          *          *

As records fell and scouts gathered, Isabella remained even-keeled.

“When all these scouts were coming in, obviously to see him, he would always deflect it,” Ford said. “He would say they were here to see guys like Marquis or Bryton, stuff like that. He’s very humble, but no, this process hasn’t changed him. Even going into this year, when he was on all these award watch lists and stuff, he was like, ‘Dude, I hope we can start this year, we’ve got a good group of guys.’”

Off the field, teammates described Isabella as quiet, humble and professional, with a repertoire of corny one-liners to liven things up. If he had a particular style of leadership, it was less vocal, what Ford characterized as quiet confidence.

“He was always there for those guys,” Ford said. “Whether they were catching a touchdown pass, he was always the first one there celebrating with them, or if they dropped a ball, he was the first one there to console them and be like, ‘Hey, you’re going to get the next one.’ So, I think those guys really looked up to them. They saw the work he put in, and when you have a guy like that in your room it’s infectious, and you don’t want to let him down.”

UMass did, in some ways, let Isabella down. Despite his personal excellence, the Minutemen never won more than four games in a season in his four years with the program, which Isabella admitted was discouraging.

“Sometimes you question your abilities based on how the team performs,” Isabella said. “That was definitely one of the hardest parts of being at UMass.”

Isabella estimates that of approximately 24 players who entered as freshmen with him, no more than six graduated with him, the rest succumbing either to injury or discouragement and dissatisfaction. He credited his own perseverance to his Catholic faith.

“I think believing in God, believing that he has a plan for you and believing that even through the bad things that you could overcome those things through your faith, that’s always been huge,” he said. “Even going back to the hamstring injury, I had a lot of faith that things would work out… If you have a strong faith, you keep believing in what you want to do, and even through the downs you can get up and continue.”

Ford and Barr, also both Christians, attested that maintaining a life of faith is one of Isabella’s main focuses outside of football. For Ford, a fellow Catholic, common belief helped cement the bonds of friendship with Isabella.

“We had that relationship where Saturday nights we’d be flying home from a game, and then we’d see each other Sunday morning in church, go out to lunch after,” Ford said. “So faith was really important to both of us, and having that connection off the field kind of made some of the adversity that we faced together on the field a little bit easier.”

*          *          *

The NFL draft starts on Thursday April 25, stretching for three days and wrapping up on Saturday. It marks the end of months of whirlwind preparation for Isabella, who left Ohio on Christmas Day and didn’t return until after his pro day at UMass in late March. On that day, over 20 scouts showed up to McGuirk Stadium to see the kid who barely squeaked into Division I football with UMass.

A month later on that same field, the UMass football team wrapped up spring practice with the annual spring game last Saturday. Two years ago, Isabella flashed his blazing speed on a kickoff-return TD in the spring game; this year, the Minutemen ran a glorified scrimmage, with too few players to divide into two rosters.

The program Isabella leaves behind is most decidedly in transition. Whipple is gone, replaced by coach Walt Bell in December. The two starting quarterbacks from the last three years, Ford and Ross Comis, both graduated after 2018. Barr, one of the only bright spots on a struggling defense for the last two years, graduated.

The biggest loss, of course, is Isabella, and just like when Sharpe was drafted, the Minutemen will look for another hidden gem to emerge. Palmer, a junior, is expected to head a young receiver room come fall.

Despite the departures, the winds of change are welcome. Even with an NFL-caliber receiver at the center of its offense, UMass went just 13-35 in Isabella’s college career, although it’s worth noting that the 4-8 mark of the past two seasons is the best for the Minutemen since making the leap to FBS.

Still, Isabella’s success is a rare bright spot, something the Minutemen can point to in the midst of a string of losing seasons.

“Obviously all of us wish we won more football games,” Ford said. “I don’t think anybody’s happy, even with a couple months passed, with how that season went, and even the season before that. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Guys like Andy and Tajae have brought so much positive light to this program. I think it’s going to translate in the next couple years here, with this new staff.”

For Isabella, the struggles of UMass are in the past, but the Minutemen may receive a little more positive light from his success. His dominant numbers at the combine not only improved his draft stock, but made a splash for UMass football.

As the draft approaches, projections still vary wildly for where Isabella will be selected. CBS has him ranked 79 overall in the draft and NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein projects him as a third or fourth round pick, while Pro Football Focus ranks him at number 30 on its draft board and PFF’s Mike Renner wrote a lengthy piece arguing that he was worthy of a first-round pick.

UMass has had players taken in the first round, but not since 1968, before the AFL-NFL merger. Within the past 50 years, guard Vladimir Ducasse holds the honor of highest-drafted, coming off the board with the 61st pick in 2010. Since UMass made the jump to the FBS, it was Sharpe in the fifth round.

Isabella is very likely to be taken higher than Sharpe and may even beat Ducasse, should he sneak into the middle of the second round. His goal, he said, was mainly just to get taken on day two of the draft, Friday the 26th – rounds two and three.

Regardless, like Sharpe before him, Isabella has already left a mark on UMass.

“I think Andy’s going to be a really good catalyst for this program going forward,” Ford said. “Someone that UMass can kind of build their program around, saying, ‘Hey, if you come here and do the right things, on and off the field, look what you can do.’”

Thomas Haines can be reached at [email protected]and followed on Twitter @thainessports.

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