In maybe the upset of the draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t use one of their nine 2021 draft picks on a player from the MAC. These are the Steelers. No one loves MACtion more than Kevin Colbert and company. Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, James Harrison — all products from the Mid-American Conference.
But all hope is not lost. The Steelers signed one undrafted free agent from the MAC. That’s Kent State WR Isaiah McKoy. And he’s a name to watch this summer.
McKoy’s journey to the MAC was an unusual path. Growing up in Brooklyn, when he was in high school his mom moved them 851 miles away to Norcross, Georgia. All for the betterment of McKoy’s football career and the hopes it would improve his chances of getting college attention.
“[We moved to] have a better career on the football field,” he tells me in an interview last week. “Just to make sure that I graduated high school and also to go to a good school. A predominant school in football, basketball, baseball. It was just a blessing.”
Norcross is littered with NFL names. Saints’ star running back Alvin Kamara. Giants’ linebacker Lorenzo Carter. Jets’ tight end Chris Herndon. All Norcross alums.
McKoy was a late bloomer for his high school team, not putting up big numbers until his senior season. That year, he caught just 23 passes but made each one count. He averaged over 22 yards per grab and found the end zone eight times. Schools took notice, and several offers came in that would’ve allowed him to stay close to home: Georgia Southern, Arkansas State, UT-Chattanooga. But McKoy turned them down to make the trip up north to Ohio and the Kent State Golden Flashes. Deciding to make a big move like that came down to one reason. Playing time.
“I just hate sitting on the sidelines. That’s something that I’m scared of. That was my motivation as soon as I got on campus.”
Kent State told him he’d play right away. And play he did. As a true freshman, McKoy made an immediate impact. He was third on the team in receptions (42) and yards (423), and second in touchdowns (3). His first touchdown came in his first game against Howard, a sensational grab off the defender for a 42-yard score.
McKoy took over as the team’s #1 receiver for the next two seasons. There, he got to flash his downfield ability. He averaged over 15 yards per grab in 2019, a number which jumped to 18.2 in 2020. Time and time again, he made big plays downfield.
Though Kent State played just four games in 2020 due to the pandemic, McKoy declared for the draft as a true junior.
— ISAIAH MARQUIS MCKOY (@ZAEGOT6IX) December 16, 2020
Some outsiders, and probably some Kent State fans, were probably surprised at the decision. Why not come back for your senior year, put up even bigger numbers, and boost your stock higher? For McKoy, it was part of a long-term plan. One he didn’t intend on altering.
“I made that decision way long before the pandemic hit. Way before college. When you’re going to a small school, I told myself I was going to treat myself as one of the best receivers in the country no matter what conference or school I was at. That wasn’t something I made the past year. That was something I had in my head before I graduated high school.”
Like every prospect, McKoy was optimistic in getting drafted. But his phone didn’t ring Thursday, Friday, or over the final four rounds on Saturday. That left undrafted free agency, the most chaotic moments of draft weekend. A free-for-all of teams offering deals, players and agents evaluating options, everyone making split-second decisions to fill out their rosters.
He had two offers. Detroit and Pittsburgh. The decision was a no-brainer.
“I’m trying to go to the Super Bowl. I’m not coming here to just play football. I’m trying to win something.”
The Steelers and their six Lombardis made it an easy choice. Area scout Dan Colbert called his agent, made the offer, and McKoy accepted.
As the team always says, they don’t care how you got here. Draft pick, UDFA, futures contract, none of that matters. Success stories have been carved out from every path. James Harrison is a Kent State alum who went from undrafted, cut too many times to count, to winning Defensive MVP and becoming one of the game’s fiercest pass rushers.
For McKoy, his goal is to do anything and everything the Steelers ask of him.
“They’re going to get a person who wants to win. I don’t care how many passes I get, how many touchdowns I score. I’m a team player. I love blocking downfield. I’ll do anything on special teams I need to do. Returning punts, kicks. I’ll go down and block a punt, a field goal. Anything that’ll help the team win.”
His immediate step is to take part in Steelers’ rookie minicamp this weekend, May 14th-16th. Union head DeMaurice Smith recommended rookies skip the three-day weekend but McKoy says he has every intention of being there and starting his NFL career.
“I’m on the team. So I’m going to show up. All that optional stuff, I’m not taking as optional.”
After JuJu Smith-Schuster’s re-signing, Pittsburgh has a crowded wide receiver room of Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, James Washington, and Ray-Ray McCloud. Those first four names are locks. McCloud has a very good chance of making the roster again, leaving — at most — one spot on the 53.
But if McKoy can even snag a practice squad spot, he could look to replace Washington, who will be a free agent after the season. The two have similar skillsets, as Dave Bryan pointed out in his target contextualization. Good size, great attitudes, a willingness to block, and despite lacking elite speed, serious downfield ability.
No one knows the future. All McKoy can promise is making the most of this opportunity.
“Tomlin said he’d give me a chance. I’m definitely not going to let him down.”