The NFL season starts in 158 days, and if Chapman wide receiver Jacob Isabel wants to have a chance at making an NFL roster, he has to make each day count.
And so far, he has. At the University of Southern California (USC)’s pro day March 21, Isabel caught all seven passes – including the first and last of the day – he was thrown by USC quarterback Sam Darnold, many of which were in the pouring rain. But Isabel, a senior, wasn’t originally scheduled to catch a single pass from Darnold, who is projected to be the first pick in the 2018 NFL draft.
It was by chance that Isabel met ex-USC wide receiver De’Quan Hampton at Athletic Republic, a sports training facility in Santa Ana, California. Hampton passed Isabel’s tape on to Darnold, who liked what he saw and set up a three-day slate of practices with Isabel before the pro day. On the third day, Isabel said, they clicked; Isabel was told he’d catch three or four passes the next morning.
After Isabel caught the first pass of the day, Jordan Palmer, an ex-NFL quarterback and the quarterback consultant who ran the pro day for Darnold, could see Isabel was “in a zone,” and continued to call his name to run routes.
“(Palmer) had noticed the other guys were dropping balls, so I started stepping forward when he was calling out people for routes and he would point me out,” Isabel said. “They wanted Sam (Darnold) to look good and I was there making him look good.”
Isabel also ran a 4.48 second 40-meter dash, which would have tied him for 12th-best among wide receivers at the NFL Scouting Combine. But after he caught the last pass of the day and felt confident in his performance, Isabel said the Los Angeles Rams was the only team to approach him. The team had him take the Wonderlic test, which NFL teams use to gauge player intelligence.
“It kind of sucks, I thought I performed well enough to talk to some more people,” Isabel said. “I’m just trying to stay patient, positive and keep on working out, because someone is going to end up calling, I think.”
Isabel’s got a shot. Every time he gets an opportunity, he needs to make sure he’s taking advantage of it.
About a week later, it’s 1 p.m. March 29 and the sun is beating down on Chapman’s Wilson Field. Isabel drops his black duffle bag on the turf and takes a seat at the end of one of the aluminum benches on the sideline. He takes off his running shoes and reaches into the bag for his white Adizero cleats.
Isabel just finished a two-hour training session at Athletic Republic and now he laces up the cleats and prepares to catch passes with Chapman quarterback Ricky Bautista. After an hour, he’ll head off the field to lift in the athletes’ weight room.
If it were a Monday, Wednesday or Friday, Isabel would have the rest of the day to himself, maybe heading home to his girlfriend in Torrance and working on marketing himself to potential teams in the NFL or Canadian Football League (CFL). But it’s a Thursday, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Isabel has class until 10 p.m.
“It’s weird, I don’t really get tired,” he said.
The grind isn’t new to Isabel. After struggling academically in his first few years at Chabot College and seeing potential Division I football offers evaporate due to academic ineligibility, Isabel took two years off from school and worked at a restaurant. He had to boost his GPA to be eligible to play again and found a home at Chapman.
Isabel, a 24-year-old psychology major, bears a tattoo of Chapman’s mascot, the panther, on his right calf. With its sharp black and red ink, it’s a striking piece he had done after his first season at Chapman.
Isabel said he’s always had a chip on his shoulder, whether it was from being the youngest of five boys, being undersized at 5 feet 8 inches tall, or now, from being from a Division III school.
That mentality was apparent in Isabel’s quick, physical play. He finished his Chapman career with a conference championship and single-season school receiving records in touchdowns, with 10, and yards, with 1,050.
But is that, coupled with his pro day performance, enough for the NFL? Ex-NFL player and scout Marc Lillibridge says it may be.
“He’s got a shot,” Lillibridge said. “He had an NFL pro day where NFL scouts are there, and he had maybe the top pick in the draft throwing to him. So he’s already put himself on the map. (But) if he’s Division III, he has to be the best player on the field every time he steps on the field and his tape needs to show that.”
Lillibridge said Isabel should take whatever pro opportunity he gets if football is his passion in life, but he’ll need to find a team that’s interested in taking on an undersized receiver.
“I would think, no matter what, he’s probably going to get into a camp as a free agent,” Lillibridge said. “The window is open for him right now, he’s just got to continue to not drop any balls, and every time he gets an opportunity, he needs to make sure he’s taking advantage of it.”
Isabel said he’ll continue to pursue a football career for the next few years, whether it’s in the CFL, an arena league or even Europe. But in terms of getting that NFL shot? He’s not quite sure.
“I know I can play,” Isabel said. “It’s just going to take someone to like my film. Once someone watches my film, I know that they’re going to give me a call.”