The fifth-ranked Bulldogs were cruising to their tenth victory of the season at Sanford Stadium when a five-foot-eight, 188-pound wide receiver stole the show.
UMass’s Andy Isabella motioned in-tight to the formation then unleashed his 4.31-speed on a flag route running through the Georgia secondary for a 45-yard touchdown, his second of the day.
Georgia won the game, handily, 66-27, but Isabella finished with 15 catches for 219 yards and two touchdowns and set a new high water mark with his second touchdown grab for career receiving yards (3,526) and single-season receiving yards (1,698) in program history.
“What a player. I mean, he did a phenomenal job,” said Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm after the game. “It didn’t matter who we put on him.”
Along with breaking program records, Isabella averaged an FBS-best 141.5 receiving yards per game in 2018, and his draft stock skyrocketed after that Saturday in Athens.
The Mayfield, Ohio native is on an improbable path to the NFL; he received only one FBS offer out of High School and then switched positions during his freshman season.
The career receiving yards king in UMass history wasn’t a wide receiver when he arrived in Amherst.
“I went to UMass as a running back and went all of my freshman camp as a running back, and kind of saw that I wasn’t going to play at running back [laughs],” Isabella told me. “I went to scout team during the first week and started playing scout team receiver and started doing pretty well at that.”
“Before you know it, they needed some guys on special teams, and I was doing well on the scout team playing receiver, so they said we are going to move you to receiver and play you on special teams and see where it goes from there.”
Isabella played mostly on special teams his freshman season as he transitioned to wide receiver, but the UMass coaching staff realized what they had during his Sophomore camp.
With three catches for 95 yards, Isabella’s breakout performance came against Florida in the first game of his Sophomore season starting with a 53-yarder on what would become his signature route.
“We call it a sit-go. Puma and go we call it. A puma is an outside stutter instead of an inside stutter, a little stutter and go,” he said breaking down his favorite pattern.
The Florida game was a turning point for Isabella both in terms of his career at UMass and his dreams of playing in the NFL, “I always had it in the back of my mind even growing up that I wanted to [play in the NFL]. I think it got real my sophomore year of college when I had my first game against Florida. I played pretty well and thought maybe I could do this for real.”
From there came another 3,400-plus receiving yards and games like last November against Georgia and a few weeks earlier in a shootout with Liberty.
The Georgia game gets all the love, but Isabella said that his 303-yard performance against Liberty was sweeter because UMass got the win in triple overtime. He set the school record for receiving yards in a single game, and it was also the most receiving yards in a game by any FBS player last season.
“That was big because I was fighting through an injury I had earlier in the game, and I was able to keep going and get the win in the end.”
Isabella’s 2018 campaign led to a Senior Bowl invite, but despite dominating on the outside during his time at UMass, he ran almost every route in Mobile from the slot.
For the Minutemen, the 5-8 wideout ran 63 percent of his routes on the perimeter, and 80 percent of his receiving yards came from outside the hashes in 2018, but the NFL scouts wanted to see him work inside (date according to Pro Football Focus).
“I hadn’t really worked on slot receiver like that. I don’t think I ran a route over ten yards at the Senior Bowl, except for maybe a seam route. It was definitely a little bit different than what I was doing, but I’ve done similar things before,” he told me during a phone interview.
“I think that’s where they’re going to start me off is in the slot. If I work my way up, I can work my way to the outside, but wherever they’re going to play me at is where I’m going to play.”
Isabella’s speed, he clocked in at 4.31 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, makes him a nightmare to cover on an island outside the numbers.
“I just like running away from people. You have a lot of space outside, and if you can run away from someone, then you can really do some damage. Usually, you’re on an island; there aren’t a lot of guys on the outside. It’s usually just you and another person so its fun,” he explained.
Isabella is working this offseason on transitioning into a slot receiver to get ready for his rookie season in the NFL, and he got a little help from a Hall of Famer along the way.
In the lead up to the Senior Bowl and combine, Isabella trained with former NFL receiver Yo Murphy in Tampa Bay, Florida.
Murphy played with former Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss and brought Moss in three days a week to work with the next crop of NFL draft prospects that come through his training program.
“It was an intense workout right off the bat,” Isabella said. “Our strength coach would warm us up, and then Randy would get there, and we’d get right into it running full speed routes.”
“To warm up, we’d do some ladder drills and some footwork drills. That would last about 30 minutes. Then we’d get right into running routes, whatever he wanted us to run, for another hour and a half and we’d run 40-yard sprints in between to get our wind up and see if we could run routes when we were tired.”
Although he spent time with the former Pats and Vikings star, Isabella said the Hall of Famer doesn’t talk much about his playing days or his former quarterback, Tom Brady, “he’s not much of a talker. Just more of a worker,” he said of Moss.
In true Moss fashion, the former NFL star had one piece of advice that stuck with Isabella.
“Randy says I should work on my footwork a little bit more, and he says that’s if I work on my footwork, and get that down, that’s going to be the difference between making six million dollars and $20 million, that’s what he told me. So I guess I need to work on my footwork, according to Randy Moss.”
Other than Moss’s pointers, Isabella ignores the critiques of his game from the media, but he did try to silence some doubts about his hands at his Pro Day.
“I wanted to show that I could catch the ball consistently, use my hands to catch it,” he said of his Pro Day. “I know a lot of people were saying that I’m a body catcher. I wanted to show that I could run full-speed routes and catch the ball normally.”
And in an attempt to end false comparisons to shifty slot receivers such as Julian Edelman, I asked Isabella which NFL receivers he models his game after.
“I like watching Golden Tate a lot. I’ve been watching him a lot over the last couple of years. Either him or Tyreek Hill. I think Golden Tate was a running back at one point in time.”
The UMass product also mentioned Rams wide receiver Brandin Cooks.
The NFL might see him as a slot receiver, and as a converted running back and speedster, he’s incredibly dangerous with the ball in his hands.
But like his pro comparisons, Isabella is a deep threat at heart.