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Nothing Small How Andy Isabella Battled Against Big Schools

College work against top opponents helped wide receiver impress Cardinals

WR Andy Isabella makes a TD catch at his first rookie minicamp practice
Wide receiver Andy Isabella makes a touchdown catch during a practice at rookie minicamp.

The bomb Andy Isabella caught against South Florida this past season is the one Spencer Whipple remembers, the 53-yard pass in which Isabella put his head down and sprinted to a spot before picking the ball back up, catching it and fighting his way in for a touchdown.

Ask the wide receiver himself, and it's the 53-yard catch he made in The Swamp in the 2016 season opener – Isabella's sophomore year at the University of Massachusetts – against Florida.

These are the plays that helped make Isabella a second-round pick of the Cardinals. Not so much that they were explosive, but for whom they came against.

"As soon as I got here they asked what do you think about this kid?" said Whipple, in his first season as an offensive assistant on the Cardinals' staff after coaching Isabella at UMass, three years as a receivers coach and last year as the school's passing-game coordinator.

"I was like, 'He's going to run in the 4.3s.' They were like, 'C'mon.' Steve (Keim), Kliff (Kingsbury) and those guys hadn't really seen what he had done. I pulled all the clips, because I knew what he had done, and said, 'Here's what he's done against the best teams in the country.' "

There was the seven catches for 158 yards and a touchdown at Mississippi State as a junior. The game-high 95 yards receiving during the Florida game. He totaled 191 yards and a score on 13 catches in the South Florida game, and 96 yards on five catches against Boston College and new teammate Zach Allen this past season.

Isabella has had his big games on the big stage, even though he stands only 5-foot-9, even though he played for the independent Minutemen.

He knows Keim mentioned after picking Isabella the performances against bigger programs made the wideout more attractive. Isabella, however, laughs at the topic.

"I just read a book that says you should be mad if someone asks you a question like that, because you should play as hard as you can every game," Isabella said. "I think I do do that. But the coaches definitely tried to feature me in those big games, and I think I rose to the occasion most of the time."

Isabella saved his best for last, closing the season against powerful Georgia by piling up 15 catches for 219 yards and two touchdowns. Of course, UMass lost the game, 66-27, which is what still irritates Isabella.

"Everyone says you had a great game, but the score, we lost by like, 50 points," Isabella said. "I want to win games. I couldn't care less if I had 400 yards. I want to win."

That's the guy Whipple knew the Cardinals would be getting, the driven kid who is a perfectionist. The kid who, when the UMass strength coach deliberately didn't plow the snow on the field just to force Isabella to rest instead of work out, got a shovel to clear his area anyway -- just so he could work out.

Even the way Isabella started his career coincided with a big opponent. He was going to redshirt as a freshman, but after lighting it up in intrasquad scrimmages, the coaching staff decided to activate him midseason – in a game that just happened to be at Notre Dame, on national TV.

His confidence just grew. "At Georgia, I remember seeing him in the tunnel (before the game), flipping the ball in the air like nothing was going on," Whipple said.

At the Senior Bowl, Isabella was named MVP of the winning North squad. He had the 102 catches for 1,698 yards as a senior. He ran the 4.3 40-yard dash. In the most recent episode of "Flight Plan," Kliff Kingsbury can be seen calling Isabella a "little beast" prior to the pick. For a 5-9 kid who no one wanted coming out of high school, it was meaningful.

"It's cool that they believe in me," Isabella said. "It's kind of a different scenario now. Usually no one believes in me and I'm trying to fight my way into a spot."

Kingsbury, hanging out with former teammate Tom Brady at the recent Kentucky Derby, said NFL receivers like Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman – players to whom Isabella has been compared -- were already asking Kingsbury about Isabella.

Perhaps that's why, the day he arrived in Tempe this week, Isabella still had some disbelief. "I'm waiting for God to wake me up," he said.

There's no need. Isabella said he would once dream of the days he'd be in college and play in the stadiums of Georgia and Florida. He did that, and did it well enough that his spot in the NFL is reality.

"I always wanted to play in the NFL and I knew any chance I had to go to the NFL I had to show up in games like that," Isabella said. "That was definitely in the back of my mind when I was playing against those teams."

Images from the first day of rookie minicamp in 2019, Kyler Murray's debut on the field.