2023 NFL Draft

Interview: Florida A&M’s Isaiah Land Blazing His Trail To The NFL

Some players are just born in it. Trevor Lawrence. Andrew Luck. Derrick Henry. Superstars from high school to the NFL. Can’t-miss guys who, in fact, did not miss. They seem to have football destiny, stars from the first time they put on the pads.

That isn’t Florida A&M defensive end Isaiah Land’s story. Make no mistake, he could be an NFL star. But he was late to playing football. Late to putting on weight. Late to getting noticed in the league. Ultimately, none of it matters. Land participated in last week’s Senior Bowl. He’s on the league’s radar, one step away from the pros, ready to make his dream a reality.

Land didn’t start with the football field. He played a bit growing up, Pop Warner, all the little league stuff. But basketball caught his attention more than the gridiron. Before there was ever a thought about the NFL, there was the hope of being a star on the court.

“Around the sixth grade, I had a lot of friends that played basketball in the new neighborhood I lived in,” he tells me in an interview last week. “[My mom said] either I could play for basketball or play football. So I tried to play basketball.”

But that only lasted through middle school. In 9th and 10th grade, Land wasn’t playing any sports. Until he got noticed back on the basketball court. Only this time, it was with a football in his hands.

“The end of 10th grade, I was playing football in the basketball gym with the football players. Spring practice was about to start and one of the DB coaches came to me and was like, ‘you should try playing football, spring practice is about to start. I just took that as my sign, keep playing football and to give football a shot again. Because I always wanted to but I just didn’t have the courage to start back playing the game.”

A sudden growth spurt helped too, going from 5’8 entering 10th grade to 6’3 by the time he got to college. Football stuck this time and he played his junior and senior seasons. But he wasn’t a big recruit coming out of school in part because he wasn’t big himself. A defensive end, he was one of the skinniest ones you’ll find.

“I was an undersized defensive end. Probably left high school about 170 pounds.”

So the Power 5 wasn’t interested in a skinny pass rusher new to the game. There weren’t many college offers but Florida A&M was the first and that was good enough for Land, just looking for the chance to play at the next level.

“FAMU was my only real offer. I had got an offer from UT-Chattanooga at the end of my senior year of high school. But I was so desperate for an offer that as soon as [A&M] gave me the offer I was like, ‘okay, I’m ready to commit.'”

In school, he quickly added weight and got on a good program, gaining 10-12 pounds each year. That tracks with how the school listed him year-by-year, entering school at a listed 195 pounds and bulking up to 210, 215, and finally 225 pounds for his senior season.

After redshirting as a true freshman, Land saw action in 2019, finishing the year with five tackles for a loss, a pair of sacks, and an interception. Building blocks for 2020. Until that all stopped. The COVID pandemic began in March of 2020 and impacted the entire world, including sports. For most major schools and conferences, their seasons where shortened and lessened but they still took the field. Not Florida A&M. Small schools like his closed up shop and their entire 2020 was cancelled. Crushing as that news was, Land chose to view it as an opportunity instead of a deterrent.

“It kind of hurt me because I’m used to playing football. My coach from high school, he was like a father figure to me… he taught me to trust the process. So I took that as, oh this is like God’s way of giving me more time to put more weight on and just get better at football because 2019 my redshirt freshman year, I didn’t have a good season at all. Had two sacks and I just didn’t have a lot of good football feelings.

“We had a break from 2020 and I put it in all the work. I challenged myself the whole two years just mentally and like physically and I came back in 2021…that year was a blessing for me.”

Land didn’t just get better. He got a lot better. 2021 was a breakout year. Bigger and stronger, he became the SWAC’s Defensive Player of the season, exploding for 25.5 tackles for loss, 19 sacks, and three forced fumbles. Those video game numbers won him the Buck Buchanan Award for top defensive player in the FCS. No performance was more dominant than what he did to South Carolina State in October, a five-sack performance that carried an extra special meaning.

“2019, South Carolina State was my worst game. They had an o-lineman from the league [OT Alex Taylor], who was on his way to the league. He was taking me to their sideline, literally taking me to their sidelines, just bullying me around all game. So I had a chip on my shoulder playing him…I knew watching film from last year, they were like, ’31. he’s the weak link.’ I already knew that they was saying that. So just going into that game, I had a chip on my shoulder. I wanted to completely change their minds on that.

“So every play I was just willing, I was going hard. I played with a lot of emotion in that game and it was just a motor that I had. I think it was after I got my third sack, one of my coaches came up to me and said, ‘the school record is four sacks in a game.’ And it was third quarter or the second quarter or something like that. So I was like, ‘well that’s the school record. I can get two more’. So I turned it up a notch that fourth quarter and got two more.”

Here’s the fifth and final one to break the record, swiping past the left tackle and chasing down the quarterback.

With that level of success and explosion of college football’s transfer portal, the Power 5 schools who ignored him only a couple of years ago came calling. Land entered into the portal and for the next four days, planned to leave Florida A&M. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized the importance of staying loyal to the school who first gave him an offer, the skinny 170-pound kid just wanting to keep playing football.

“I always told myself, whatever school gives me a chance, I was gonna stick with ’em. So I had some thoughts to get in the portal after my junior year, I had a really good season. I had gotten in the portal, I had every offer in the country and it was just, I remember that conversation I had with myself one night. I was like, ‘I’m gonna stick with the school that gave me a chance.’ I knew FAMU needed me as a key player, so I just wanted to stick out with them my last year.”

Encouragement from Deion Sanders didn’t define Land’s decision but didn’t hurt either. While the two didn’t personally speak, Sanders advised Land in an interview with 247 to stay in school. “Don’t run from the change,” he said.

Despite offers from Texas, Georgia, LSU and other big-name schools, Land decided to return to A&M for his final season.

“If you go to Georgia, you go to Alabama, you go to the NFL, you’re just gonna be like any other dude going to the NFL from Alabama, Georgia. If I go to FAMU, I’m gonna be the first to do this and the first to do that. I’m the first Senior Bowl player from FAMU since 1993. I always wanted to be like a player that, I always wanted to be remembered when I’m done playing football. I don’t wanna just fall in line with like a whole bunch of other people. I wanna be a trailblazer.”

Land enjoyed a solid Senior Bowl week. One that came with additional adversity than just playing against all the big-school guys. For the final day of practice and parts of the game, Land was shifted from playing the EDGE to off-ball linebacker. In part due to injuries, the American Team got rocked pretty hard by the end of the week, and a chance for Land to show off his versatility. There’s still concerns about his size and fit. He’s 50 pounds heavier than he was in high school but still profiles as a lanky 6’3, 226-pound defensive end. Switching between both spots during the game, he graded out well, recording a goal line run stuff followed by this 4th down sack off the edge.

Land won’t be a first-round pick. He’s someone likely to garner more Day Three consideration, NFL Draft Scout currently putting a borderline draftable grade on him. If drafted, he’ll be the first from his school since 1999, though older Steelers’ fans know this place has produced players like Earl Holmes and Glen Edwards. Across the league, there’s also CB Ken Riley, inducted into the Hall of Fame yesterday.

Land is used to being the surprise, the outlier, the guy who proves them all wrong. He’ll be attending this year’s NFL Combine followed by his Pro Day which should draw plenty of eyes. Some might think of Land as a late-bloomer. He’s not. He’s right on time.

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