Midseason check-in for UMass football alumni in the NFL

Three former Minutemen found roles early on in the 2020 season

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Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

By Colin McCarthy, Collegian Staff

With week eight of NFL action in the books, we have officially arrived at the midpoint of the 2020 season. And with that, it’s time to check back in on the Massachusetts football team alumni suiting up in 2020.

Those that read the first check-in know that UMass is represented by four players this year: Andy Isabella, Tajae Sharpe, Elijah Wilkinson and Isaiah Rodgers. So far, the quartet has had varied levels of success.

Andy Isabella, Arizona Cardinals

Andy Isabella is a great example of a player finding their role and developing into it. For the Cardinals (5-2), he has settled into his spot as a deep-threat receiver.

The second-year wideout has a stacked receiver corps in front of him in DeAndre Hopkins, Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk. However, he benefits from head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s air raid style offense, which has allowed him to see at least 30 percent of Arizona’s offensive snaps in each of its last five games, even as the fourth receiver.

Isabella doesn’t waste his opportunities in this offense either. He already has a two-touchdown performance under his belt against the Lions and he often shows his speed on deep routes, including this 53-yard strike against the Washington Football Team.

“Andy has made huge strides, there’s no doubt,” Kingsbury said in an interview with Cardinals Game Plan. “He’s one of the hardest workers, very focused and diligent in his preparation.”

Tajae Sharpe, Minnesota Vikings

We move from a Minuteman receiver settling into their role to one who has still yet to find one. Tajae Sharpe has had trouble finding the field so far in his first year with Minnesota (2-5).

Sharpe suited up for the Vikings in the first two weeks of the season but was only targeted once and failed to register a catch. He has not suited up since, despite being healthy every week except week four, where he missed time with an illness.

With the excellent play of Adam Thielen and rookie Justin Jefferson, coupled with the power run scheme that Minnesota uses, it isn’t hard to see why Sharpe has fallen through the cracks so far this year.

The fourth-year wideout will likely remain in tough competition for playing time for the rest of the season.

Elijah Wilkinson, Denver Broncos

Elijah Wilkinson was quietly set for the biggest role of all former UMass players in 2020. He came into the season as the starting right tackle and played 100 percent of the Broncos’ (3-4) offensive snaps for the first three weeks of the year.

Since then, Wilkinson has unfortunately spent the past five weeks on injured reserve, after fracturing his shin bone.

While there is currently no timetable for his return, it is safe to assume that Wilkinson will be immediately welcomed back into his starting role when healthy. The fourth-year tackle started 12 games for Denver last season, and his versatility to be able to move from guard to tackle makes him a valuable asset in protecting quarterback Drew Lock.

Isaiah Rodgers, Indianapolis Colts

In his rookie season, sixth-round pick Isaiah Rodgers has already made a name for himself in Indianapolis (5-2) with his dangerous speed as a kick returner.

In week five against the Cleveland Browns, Rodgers took a kick out from his own endzone and weaved his way through the coverage team, bringing the kick all the way in for an electrifying 101-yard touchdown.

What makes Rodgers such an exciting young player is that while he has shown his ability to perform on special teams, he has another upside on defense. He is currently a nickel and dime package corner behind Xavier Rhodes, Rock Ya-Sin and Kenny Moore II.

Rodgers could develop on the Colts in a similar way to Saints wide receiver Deonte Harris. Harris began last season as a return specialist, but his explosiveness on returns helped him develop into a more prominent role on offense.

Whatever role he develops into on the defensive side of the football, it seems Rodgers has at least secured his spot as a special teams player and kick-return specialist.

Colin McCarthy can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @colinmccarth_DC.