INDIANAPOLIS — Last February, Mark Whipple, then head coach of the UMass Minutemen, came to work on a Sunday to pore over some tape.
It was a bright, sunny winter day, but the UMass practice field still was covered in snow after a blizzard brought nearly a foot of fresh powder to Western Massachusetts earlier in the weekend. Whipple peered out his window and saw a figure shoveling a 50-yard patch to uncover some grass.
Whipple left his office to check it out. Wide receiver Andy Isabella wanted to run.
“Our strength coach, they usually plow the field in the mornings, but they didn’t, and he was messing with me,” Isabella said. “Like, ‘You can’t work out today.’ He had a shovel there, and I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to shovel the field.’ I had nothing better to do that day anyway. So, I started shoveling the field.”
Isabella isn’t one to let a challenge go untested.
“I told him enough was enough and to get in,” Whipple said.
It wasn’t the only time Whipple, now offensive coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh, had to tell Isabella to take it easy.
“One of the few guys that I’ve had to temper his workouts and things and back him off,” Whipple said. “He just goes hard all the time.”
Yo Murphy, who’s working with Isabella at The ASPI training facility in Florida told NESN.com he has to get in Isabella’s face to tell him it’s his last rep.
“I think my why is just being overlooked a lot,” Isabella said. “That pushes me a lot.”
New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins coaches tell similar stories about wide receiver Danny Amendola, and comparisons between Isabella and slot receivers like Amendola are easy to make. Isabella, at 5-foot-9, 188 pounds, looks the part. But while Isabella’s future might come in the slot if the NFL team that drafts him isn’t overly imaginative, he shouldn’t be pigeonholed into that role. Isabella mostly played outside in college and he thinks he can do the same at the NFL level, as well.
“I think it’s more of just my toughness,” Isabella said. “You’ve got to be tough to play outside and especially being small. I think I do a good job of fending off defenders and using my speed to get open.”
Isabella also is a burner. He could run as fast as a 4.2- or 4.3-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine on Saturday (Update: He ran a 4.31-second 40-yard dash). He once beat Cleveland Browns cornerback Denzel Ward, who ran a 4.32-second 40-yard dash at last year’s combine, in the 100-meter dash to win an Ohio state championship in high school. Murphy compared Isabella to Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill. Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy likened Isabella to Brandin Cooks or T.Y. Hilton. Isabella threw in a Golden Tate comp.
In high school, Isabella had the fastest 60-meter dash time in the country at 6.72 seconds. That finally opened some college’s eyes less than a week before signing day. Still, all UMass had to do was offer him a scholarship to get him to come to Amherst, Mass., and play for the Minutemen. Isabella only had scholarship offers from UMass, Air Force and FCS schools. No one was all that interested in a 5-foot-7, 170-pound running back. Isabella, fortunately, went through a growth spurt and position change.
Isabella now is working to control that speed with former Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss. Murphy said the two wideouts have formed a close bond and he expects them to stay in contact even after the draft.
“That’s been good,” Isabella said of working with Moss. “He’s been really tough on us. I like working with that style of coaching. He would have us out there running like eight 40s and then get on the line, run five routes and then get back on the line and run like eight more 40s full speed. And actually, the first day working out with him, I sat on the field for like 30 minutes just trying to drag myself to the car. And then the next day, we were out there doing the same thing. Now it’s more we have a relationship where I can talk to him and not be afraid to talk to him. He’s definitely teaching me a lot.”
Moss is coaching Isabella when and how to turn on the jets. He challenges Isaballa at the line of scrimmage and gets on him when he drops a pass. In 1-on-1 work at the training facility, Murphy says cornerbacks have trouble keeping up with Isabella’s jets.
Moss also is teaching Isabella the intricacies of running routes from the slot. Because even though Isabella can play outside and proved it against top competition at UMass — he had 102 catches for 1,698 yards with 13 touchdowns in 2018 including a 15/219/2 line against Georgia — Moss still believes an NFL team will want to start him out inside.
“He says based on my performances and my reputation in the league, hopefully, my role will increase,” Isabella said.
Comparisons between Isabella and Amendola, Wes Welker and Julian Edelman will be plentiful. In Isabella’s second session with Moss, the Hall of Fame receiver noted he was just as small as Welker.
But they’re also off base. Amendola ran a 4.70-second 40-yard dash at the combine. Welker ran a 4.65 at his pro day; Edelman was clocked at 4.52.
There’s a reason Isabella is being talked about as a prospect who could be selected by the second day of the 2019 NFL Draft. If he runs as fast as many expect, he’ll be much more than your typical undersized receiver.