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."