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Speed got wide receiver Andy Isabella to UMass, but it was his domination of both small and large college football programs that put him on a fast track to the NFL

By Chase Goodbread | Published Feb. 19, 2019

TAMPA -- Anyone else could barely be heard. The whining hum of cars barreling down SR-589 at breakneck speeds, just north of I-275 and directly beside Skyway Park, is loud enough on its own. Throw in the incessant screech of a pressure washer blasting the concrete sidewalks around the grounds, and the backdrop of noise is near deafening.

The Hall of Famer's voice booms though, and cuts through the din with the distinct West Virginia accent that could only belong to Randy Moss. He's forcefully imparting no-nonsense wisdom culled from 16 seasons as an elite pro. Andy Isabella hangs on every word.

Moss wastes none.

"I'm Randy Moss, so now the awkwardness is out of the way," he says as a matter of introduction. "Let's get to work."

It's a pleasantly warm, sun-splashed day in Tampa, the kind of January weather that compels people from the part of the country Isabella calls home to move south. One of the top wide receiver prospects in the 2019 NFL Draft, Isabella fell into Moss' tutelage when his agent sent him to The Applied Science and Performance Institute (ASPI) in Tampa, which contracts Moss for field coaching, to train for the upcoming NFL scouting combine.

Isabella doesn't notice the noise. He never has. Not the kind he's having to filter out at Skyway Park, as it competes with Moss' voice, and not the kind that surrounded his football career.

If it wasn't coming from people who thought he was too short, it came from those who thought he'd never get noticed playing football at UMass. If not the 40-yard dash timer at a 2014 SPARQ combine, who so refused to believe Isabella's 4.39 clocking that he made him run it three more times, then the Oklahoma State recruiter who withdrew a late scholarship opportunity less than 24 hours after extending it.

The kid who once built NFL stadiums with Legos was always certain he'd one day play in one and had a deaf ear for anyone who doubted it. Now, he's ready to make some noise of his own.

As players, the two couldn't be much more different in style. Moss parlayed a 6-foot-4 frame, blinding speed and long arms to become one of the NFL's all-time great deep threats. At 190 pounds, Isabella stands just 5-foot-9 and wasn't blessed with any of the limb length that helped Moss play the game, in basketball parlance, above the rim. Isabella was a running back until just three years ago, and still brings a running back's quickness and instincts to the open field.

Moss doesn't avoid the subject with Isabella or his other pupil on this day, former West Florida WR Antoine Griffin, who has an even lighter frame than Isabella at just 160 pounds.

"I was a vertical speed guy," he tells them, motioning his arm straight downfield. "You guys are going to be asked to play and get open in a short area. You've got to have that down from Day 1."

He's teaching elements of the slot position, and with detailed intricacy. He wants a half-second delay off the line of scrimmage on option routes, because it gives a slot receiver a better and easier read of the defense. Most of all, he wants footwork perfection. At one point, Isabella runs a short curl route and makes a splendid catch on an errant throw, fully extending his left arm for a one-handed catch. The ball was in the air before Isabella turned his head -- his adjustment was instant -- but no praise followed, because Moss is watching feet, not hands. Turns out, the throw wasn't errant -- the route was -- and per Moss, the ball would've come straight to Isabella's chest had he made a tighter turn.

"Sloppy feet don't eat," Moss says -- a perfectly memorable jingle for a wide receiver readying for the NFL draft.

The ASPI contracted Moss for 12 sessions -- three a week over four weeks -- but Isabella's participation at last month's Reese's Senior Bowl limited him to nine of them, and only six before he traveled to Mobile, Ala., for the annual all-star game. This is one reason Moss was teaching the slot position -- not because he doubts Isabella's potential to play the X or Z outside receiver, but because he knew NFL coaches and scouts at the Senior Bowl would want to assess the receiver's slot skills first and foremost.

Truth is, there is high confidence in the NFL scouting community that Isabella can indeed play outside despite his size. Speed is the one thing he has in common with Moss' game, and it's the primary trait necessary to overcome a size deficiency at the X and Z positions. Scouts aren't comparing Isabella to slot stalwarts like Wes Welker or Danny Amendola. Instead, they're invoking names like T.Y. Hilton and Brandin Cooks, two smaller receivers whose speed makes them explosive outside threats. An area scout representing an NFC team said Isabella projects as a third-round pick, while an AFC team scout believes he'll go in Round 2.

More than once, Moss tells Isabella he'll watch the Senior Bowl on NFL Network with a critical eye, looking for him to execute some of the slot principles he's imparting in Tampa. But he sees what scouts see: potential in any receiver role.

"I don't look at height -- you look at Antonio Brown, there are smaller guys still out there doing it on the outside," Moss says. "Andy's athletic ability is tops. I can see why he put up the numbers he put up."

Isabella dug his left heel into the Lane 6 starting block with something to prove. It was the climactic moment of the 2015 Ohio High School Athletic Association Regional Track Meet, held at Austintown Fitch High, just west of Youngstown. A few feet to his left, in Lane 4 was Denzel Ward, the favorite to win the boys 100-meter dash finals. Three years later, Ward would clock a 4.32 40-yard dash at the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine, tying him for the fastest time among cornerbacks. He'd go on to be the No. 4 overall pick of last year's NFL draft by Isabella's hometown team, the Cleveland Browns.

But this would not be Ward's day.

Isabella blew away the field with a time of 10.51 -- Ward finished third at 10.68 -- and validation was his. Being the fastest kid in Ohio had never been enough for the Ohio States of college football, where Ward honed his skills, to pay Isabella much attention.

He was used to it.

In his first season playing youth football, in the Cleveland suburb of Willoughby, his size had him on the bench until he begged his father, Tony, to ask an assistant coach with whom he was friends, to give Andy just one carry. He took that carry -- the first time he'd ever touched a ball in a competitive game -- about 70 yards for a touchdown, then did a front flip in the end zone to draw a 15-yard penalty.

An elderly neighbor, Mrs. Olson, employed Isabella to walk her dog when he was a kid, and used to scoff when Andy would tell her he would one day play in the NFL. Now deceased, she built a close friendship with Andy and used to encourage him in every other way. But the NFL? C'mon.

His college recruitment wasn't much different. Mayfield High coach Larry Pinto estimated that in his 18 years as head coach, the Wildcats produced no more than six Division I signees, and a lack of size throughout the program was a big reason for it. True to form, Isabella found himself without an FBS scholarship offer of any note just a week before national signing day in 2015. On Jan. 29, just six days before signing day, he clocked a 6.72 60-meter dash at one of Mayfield's indoor meets, the fastest high school time in the nation at that point of the indoor season.

"He is cartoon fast," said Pinto.

UMass coach Mark Whipple, the former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks coach, caught wind of the clocking, quickly evaluated some film, and called Isabella with a scholarship offer just three days later. Isabella accepted on the phone, without ever having stepped foot on the Amherst campus.

"He reminded me of a kid from (Ft. Lauderdale) St. Thomas Aquinas in 1998, named Adrian Zullo. He didn't have another offer and won a 100-meter championship and ended up being the all-time leading receiver at UMass until Tajae (Sharpe) broke it," said Whipple, who signed Zullo as part of the first signing class of his first stint as UMass head coach (1998-2003). "We needed speed badly then, and we needed it again when we heard about Andy."

The NFL needs it, too.

And because it does, Isabella's speed might finally command the football respect it deserves when the 2019 combine convenes in Indianapolis next week.

"I ran 4.43 at the combine, and he's way faster than what I was," said Isabella's position coach at UMass, five-year NFL veteran Leonard Hankerson.

Added Arizona State strength coach Joe Connolly, who was Isabella's strength coach at UMass for two years: "I wouldn't be surprised if he ran in the 4.2s, but he will absolutely run in the 4.3s. I would put my house on that."

It had to be a maintenance guy. Or a member of the grounds crew. Who else, Joe Connolly thought, would be shoveling 12 inches of snow off the McGuirk Alumni Stadium turf on a January Sunday? Temps had dipped below 20 degrees -- who knows how frigid the wind chill was with the high winds -- and the UMass strength coach pulled his SUV closer to the field as a short, sturdy frame began to take shape. Connolly opened his car door to let his dog, a brown Boxer named Sullivan, run onto the field and get the shoveler's attention.

"January in Amherst might as well be Alaska," Connolly said. "You barely see the ground for months, and Andy is out there digging a path to run sprints on his own. It was ridiculous."

Sullivan ran up on Isabella completing a cleared path of about 40 yards, two hours of moving snow, so he could work out on a day the rest of the Minutemen weren't even scheduled to.

"The school always plowed the field for us after snowstorms, but they hadn't done it yet and I had to get the work in," Isabella said. "And of course, as soon as I got done, the plows came out."

This is how seriously he takes the craft.

Seriously enough that he's never consumed a drop of alcohol.

Seriously enough that within hours of his training day ending at The ASPI, he sent multiple texts to Director of Sports Performance Yo Murphy asking if he could return for extra weightlifting.

Seriously enough that he once spent $1,500 of his annual $1,600 NCAA cost-of-living stipend on a pair of NormaTec recovery boots, because he'd been told they were popular among NFL players.

"I didn't have a dime to spend that whole year," he said.

Seriously enough that he turned a 200-yard hill near UMass, north of campus off Pine Street, into an outdoor incline treadmill. Former Minutemen RB Marquis Young had first shown it to Isabella, who in turn disclosed his workouts there to new strength coach Brian Phillips. The unkempt grass, to Phillips, was far too high for safe exercise.

"If you can't see what you're stepping on, you don't need to be running some random hill in Amherst," Phillips told him.

Isabella ran it anyway.

Back in Tampa, that innate doggedness surfaces in the third of Isabella's workouts with Moss.

It's supposed to be a light one, and the Hall of Fame receiver is teaching only technique after seeing two days of full-speed athleticism. Moss asks for just 30 percent effort -- little more than a jog to emphasize form -- but Isabella comes off the ball with a burst that looks more like 70 percent. After 15 minutes, Moss tells him to throttle down more.

First, down to 20 percent, then he asks for only 10.

"Just walk this, Andy," he says before the day's final drill.

Isabella wouldn't change much about his relationship with Vinnie Davis, but if anything, he'd level the notion that it's a friendship born of pity.

When a high school freshman with a learning disability and the star of that high school's football team become inseparably close, a certain narrative takes natural root: Mr. Popularity feeling sorry for a vulnerable kid, a protective jock looking out for an easy bullying target.

To outsiders, that might be exactly how it looks. To Isabella, it's nothing like that at all.

Anytime Isabella came home from college, the two went everywhere together -- Master Pizza, Progressive Field for Cleveland Indians games, or just to hang out at the home of Andy's high school sprint coach, Preston Parker. Vinnie has drawers full of UMass gear, none more prized than his No. 23 Isabella jersey.

Davis, 20, suffers from Auditory Processing Disorder. It can limit his ability to comprehend what he hears, and in turn, limit his expression. He'll twitch on occasion, and his father, Vincent, said he was around 6 years old before he spoke clearly. He's permanently enrolled in a disability development class, according to his mother Vonda. Vinnie's parents moved from the rough Cleveland suburb of Maple Heights to Mayfield Heights largely due to the strength of Mayfield's special education program.

"There was always fighting going on in Maple Heights," Vinnie said. "I wasn't allowed to leave the house much, because something could've happened."

Indeed, Isabella has stepped between Vinnie and trouble -- more than once.

But the wide receiver doesn't think he'd be an NFL draft prospect today if it weren't for Vinnie -- and for that, he considers himself on the indebted side of their ledger.

In the winter of Isabella's freshman year at UMass, he had his bag all but packed. Not to transfer and continue his career elsewhere, but to come home and be done with football. He had no other opportunities to even walk on at another school, much less procure a new scholarship, but didn't much care. He barely got on the field as a freshman and was highly frustrated with the limited opportunity. He earned the kickoff return job beginning with a game at Notre Dame, but was buried on the depth chart as a running back. Given a look at receiver, he quickly blew the chance against Florida International when he ran a bad route and was hit in the shoulder pad with a pass he wasn't even looking for. The blunder put him back on the bench.

The following spring, he missed practice with a significant hamstring injury suffered in his first UMass track meet and saw no possibility of playing as a sophomore that fall. He didn't even care much for the UMass campus -- not since the first time he saw it, weeks after he'd signed to play football there.

That spring semester, Isabella thought, would be his last.

He'd Facetime with Vinnie regularly, but never told him he was considering giving up. Vinnie had circled Sept. 3, 2016 on the calendar and talked about it whenever Isabella called. On that day, the Minutemen would play at Florida -- the Gators' sacrificial lamb of a season-opening opponent.

"You're going to show them all that day," Isabella recalls Vinnie telling him. "You're going to have a great game and show the whole country what you can do."

If Vinnie was so sure, why was Isabella not?

"I ended up deciding I couldn't let Vinnie down, or my family down, by just quitting and coming home," Isabella said. "I didn't even really talk to my own parents about that -- Vinnie got me through it."

On Sept. 3, Isabella announced himself to college football with an explosive 95 yards receiving on three catches in the fabled Swamp. He generated more than half of UMass' total offense that day while playing only 15 snaps. He'd burst out of the gate on the way to a school-record 3,526 career yards.

Vinnie's progress since the move to Mayfield Heights has been striking.

He's workplace-independent, having had jobs -- sometimes more than one at a time -- at a grocery store, a carwash, a pizza place, even a seasonal gig at a toy store. At 18, he got a driver's license. And he has an uncanny memory -- downright encyclopedic when it comes to sports trivia - and never, ever forgets a birthday.

"I've got a sister with five kids, and I can barely keep all their birthdays straight," Vonda said. "Vinnie knows them all, and for everyone else he knows."

In his last three season at UMass, Isabella validated Vinnie's prophetic prediction with remarkable consistency. He amassed 1,698 yards as a senior to lead all of college football, despite 172 more being called back on penalties. His signature performance -- 15 catches, 219 yards and two scores at Georgia last November -- became the Isabella film NFL scouts most wanted to see. It set a record for receptions by a visiting player in Sanford Stadium. But scouts who dig through enough games will learn UMass' scheduling flexibility as an FBS Independent provided Isabella with much more exposure against top competition.

Along with Florida and Georgia, he competed against BYU three times, Mississippi State twice, Boston College twice, Notre Dame, Tennessee and South Carolina. That's a season's worth of games against Power Five or FBS Independent competition. The total for those games made for a fine season of its own: 71 catches for 938 yards and four touchdowns.

"He's one of the only guys (who came) to the Senior Bowl that we didn't personally scout in a game," said Senior Bowl Executive Director Jim Nagy. "But we didn't need to. We heard a lot about him from NFL people we know, and I watched about 10 plays of tape. That's all I needed to know he belonged."

Add Nagy to a growing list of people with NFL ties who believe he, indeed, belongs.

"The guy is going to be exciting," the AFC scout said. "Yeah, he's small, but he's a big play waiting to happen. The quickness is elite."

It's all noise to Isabella.

He learned years ago what the negative kind sounds like, and has found effusive praise can sound like noise, too. He wipes a little sweat from his brow, thankful to be working out in the Florida warmth, as he walks to his Chevy Cruze rental car following his second workout with Moss. The pressure washer, he's told, made it challenging to hear the Hall of Famer's instruction.

"Really?" he says. "I didn't notice it."

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