Updated: Jul 30, 2018
On Sept. 3, 2016, UMass opened its season at one of college football's grand cathedrals, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, also known as "The Swamp," to play the Florida Gators.
In a game that was closer than expected throughout, the teams were tied at 7 in the second quarter. However, the Minutemen were backed up against their 7-yard line against the No. 5 defense in the nation.
Did UMass choose to play it safe to get out of the shadow of their own end zone? Maybe a handoff or a short hitch route would do that effectively.
Quarterback Ross Comis executed a play-fake with a boot to his right and lofted a pass to a wide-open receiver down the Gators sideline. That player lost cornerback Chris Williamson on a stop-and-go move, caught the pass, and finished with a 53-yard reception into Florida territory.
It's not often that a receiver makes a Florida defensive back look slow, so most of the college football world wanted to know the same thing: Who the heck was that?
Andy Isabella, that's who.
As has been the case for Isabella's entire career in the sport, his speed is central to his first impression, even if his true ability sometimes flies a little under the radar. It's what got him noticed as a middle schooler in Mayfield, Ohio. It's what sparked the interest of college coaches in a surprisingly sparse recruiting process. And, as a member of a passing attack that could be one of the nation's best in 2018, it's what will keep opposing defensive coordinators up at night. It will also be what NFL scouts size up for the 2019 draft, but that's a ways off.
For now, people are just catching up to what Isabella can do for UMass.
"I was just ready for the moment," Isabella said of that Florida game. "I had trained so hard. Coming off the hamstring injury (suffered in a track meet his freshman year), I was hurt all winter. I really didn't even think coach (Mark) Whipple was going to give me a shot, but during the summer I did so much extra workouts and stuff just to get a shot. Luckily, not luckily, but a couple guys got injured during camp and I stepped up. I was making a lot of plays, and that was the shot he gave me.
"I was ready for the opportunity and it was a great feeling being in that stadium and stuff in front of that crowd and for the hometown. A lot of guys from my hometown still follow me, and not a lot of guys from my hometown get to play college football and all that stuff. It's good for a lot of those kids to see that and know that maybe they can do that one day."
It wasn't that long ago that Isabella was one of those hometown kids with dreams of accomplishing the types of things he's doing now.
Over the past two seasons, Isabella has caught 127 passes for 1,821 yards and 17 touchdowns. He's on the Biletnikoff Award Watch List for best wide receiver in college football for the second year in a row. And, like he showed in that game at The Swamp, he's done it against top-level competition. His best performance last season came when he caught seven passes for a career-high 158 yards, including a 69-yard touchdown, against a ranked Mississippi State team.
His former high school coach at Mayfield, Larry Pinto, remembers the first time he laid eyes on him, and the takeaway wasn't all that different than the one Isabella imprinted on those watching him against the Gators.
"We did a middle school camp, and any time he cut he never lost speed," Pinto said. "He just continued to, off his cuts, have great acceleration. And we said, 'Hey, this kid can be pretty good.' He was a little guy back in middle school. But up in high school, he had a real good junior year, and then his senior year it was like he had cartoon speed. He was just really, really good."
As Pinto said, that "cartoon speed" flourished his final year when he moved Isabella from wide receiver to running back.
"He was our running back. We sometimes put him at slot receiver. We sometimes put him out at the 'X.' He singlehandedly made huge plays for us and his senior year took us to the state semifinals," Pinto said. "In the regional finals, we had no business winning the game, and he made a run that was just incredible that got us the lead and we were able to hold onto the lead and get to the state semifinals his senior year. He was really dynamite. At any given time, if he touched the ball, he could break one from his running back position or an inside slot. He was a game-breaker. We'd try to get the ball in his hands and get different matchups with him.
"He was special."
That speed didn't just pass the eye test, but made Isabella a state champion sprinter in track. He ran personal bests of 6.72 in the 60-meter dash and 10.51 in the 100 meters. And, just as he showed later in his football career, Isabella was beating excellent competition.
"I mean, he beat (former Ohio State and current Cleveland Browns cornerback) Denzel Ward in the regionals," Pinto said, then added for emphasis, "Denzel Ward the (No. 4 overall) draft choice (in 2018)."
So, a stud football player with elite speed from a state with college recruiters combing over its every inch of turf on an annual basis makes for a surefire blue-chip recruit, right?
According to Division 1 scouts, Isabella was not much to sniff at. He held one offer from Air Force. Even though his track accomplishments gained him some attention, there were times where Isabella considered giving up his dream of playing Division 1 football.
"At a point, I was considering (just running track in college)," Isabella said. "I wasn't really getting any offers to play football, so I was like, 'Well, I could go Division 1 to run track, instead.' I could have gone almost anywhere to run track."
The process was "very frustrating," according to Pinto, but a huge break almost fell Isabella's way. Had it gone through, maybe Isabella is in Stillwater, Okla., and not Amherst.
Oklahoma State offensive coordinator, Mike Yurcich, an RPO wizard and an architect of one of the best offenses in the game, is from Euclid, Ohio, about a 10-minute drive from Mayfield. When one of the Oklahoma State wide receiver commits got cold feet, Isabella was next on Yurcich's wish list.
"It fell through," Pinto said. "I guess the kid, he de-committed from Oklahoma State, and there was interest in giving Andy the scholarship, and then the kid re-committed. So that went away."
But there was a little last-minute fortune for Isabella yet.
"I had a friend that I was helping out with track, and his dad was a coach for another school, and he had a lot of connections," Isabella said. "And I ran a really fast time in the (60-meter dash), and that gave him something to work with, and he had a lot of schools starting to call me after that. But a lot of those schools were more walk-on deals or indoor track. And then he calls me three days before signing day, and he's like, 'Well, I got something at UMass. Coach Whipple's going to call you.' So (Whipple) calls me, and all he said was, 'I'm giving you an offer.' I just said, 'I'll take it.' I never visited or anything."
Was there ever any previous contact with Whipple, or anyone at UMass at all?
"None. I didn't even know UMass was a school, right?" Isabella cracked. "I'm from Cleveland, Ohio, so I didn't even know Massachusetts was a state."
Like his recruitment, Isabella's rise up the receiver depth chart took some patience. He mostly played special teams as a freshman, primarily because of the complexity of Whipple's playbook.
"There are just so many plays, so much information," Isabella said. "Coach Whipple does a great job game-planning. He's got plays for every defense that the defense is going to throw at us. He calls great games. There are so many plays that it's hard to learn. I've gotten it down to where I could probably tell you the whole playbook now, but that's just from a lot of studying. It's hard for a guy to come in and pick up the playbook right away. I know it took me almost a full year to figure out, even though I wasn't doing my job studying as much as I wanted to."
Then came that track injury he suffered against Yale. After that, Whipple told Isabella to stick to football, and he did. By the time his sophomore year rolled around, Isabella was ready. He flashed that speed right away, and he hasn't slowed down since.
Over his first two seasons as a starter, Isabella played against five SEC defenses. In those games, he compiled 24 receptions for 368 yards and a touchdown. It's safe to say that the 5-foot-10, 195-pounder likes the big stage.
"It just makes it more fun to play. It's so much more fast paced," Isabella said. "I don't know, I like that. I feel like I'm more locked in when I'm playing these teams. It's different playing those teams. It's a lot more competitive. It's a lot more fast paced. Guys are moving around faster. You've got to be more precise. I feel really good when I'm playing those teams. I think it helps me when I go up against the smaller teams."
He will have those opportunities again this fall. The Minutemen play Boston College in Week 2, and their regular season ends with a trip to the University of Georgia, a consensus top 5 team and one of the favorites to make it back to the College Football Playoff.
Yet while playing well individually against Power 5 programs is nice, Isabella yearns for team success. The program has yet to earn a trip to a bowl game since making the jump to the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2012.
"That's always the goal," Isabella said. "It's been the goal the past three years and going into the fourth year is to make a bowl game and win a bowl game. But I think we have a team to go pretty far. Hopefully I'll be able to lead the team to some big victories and a successful season."