Florida A&M’s Isaiah Land heeded scouts’ feedback, hoping it pays off in NFL draft
After spending his senior year working to bulk up 20 pounds and practice coverage, defensive end looks to become first Rattlers player chosen since 2013
Former Florida A&M University defensive end Isaiah Land’s name has been synonymous with wreaking havoc on Southwestern Athletic Conference offensive lines for the last two seasons.
With a collegiate résumé that includes the Buck Buchanan Award, given annually to the FCS defensive player of the year, the SWAC defensive player of the year award and all-SWAC first team honors, the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Land has positioned himself to potentially become FAMU’s first NFL draft pick since 2013, when the Detroit Lions selected Brandon Hepburn in the seventh round.
Four players from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) heard their name called during the 2022 draft. Afterward Land’s teammates Markquese Bell and Keenan Forbes signed as undrafted free agents with the Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks, respectively.
Currently Land’s draft grade ranges from as high as the fourth round to a late Day 3 pick, said FAMU coach Willie Simmons.
Land spent his final season at FAMU incorporating all the feedback scouts gave him during his junior year.
With a position change imminent from collegiate defensive end to professional linebacker, scouts wanted to see him drop more into coverage, so he spent time at practice covering receivers during 7-on-7 drills.
When scouts wanted the redshirt senior to add more size to his frame, Land bulked up 20 pounds in one year, from 215 to 235 pounds, and has maintained the weight throughout the draft process. He has met with scouts from all 32 NFL teams and said most scouts have responded positively to his weight gain. He plans to play consistently near 240 pounds.
“Most teams see me as an outside linebacker. None really see me as a defensive end. They see me as just a pass rushing end,” Land said. “But for the most part, I’m playing like a 3-4 linebacker, just rushing the quarterback job [and] covering tight ends and running backs.
“My redshirt freshman year we had 3-4 [defense] going on to where I could cover a little bit. I feel like I’m way more comfortable in that aspect of football, just watching the other guys my size, my length, dropping back and just seeing how they play it. I’m a really good mental learner.”
At the Reese’s Senior Bowl in February, Land and Jackson State University linebacker Aubrey Miller anchored the American Team’s defense. As Simmons watched his former player on television at the bowl game, as well as at the NFL scouting combine, he noticed improvements since Land took his last snap of collegiate football in November.
“His ball get-off is the thing that jumps out the most. He’s an elite pass rusher, very explosive. He’s not just a straight speed guy. He does have countermoves, he’s able to transition speed to power even when he was lighter,” Simmons said. “So the added weight gain will definitely enhance his ability to transition speed power, but just a knack for getting to the quarterback, which I think is a trait that every NFL team wants.”
Simmons also praised Land’s ability to shift between positions.
“He made the unselfish move to move to linebacker, a position that he hadn’t played, and he performed admirably in that role. … He showed that he knows football, and he’s just a great football player,” Simmons said. “And I think all those things, coupled with what he’s been able to accomplish here on the field and statistically, he has definitely made himself some money.”
Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett and San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa were two of the best edge rushers in the league last season, weighing 272 and 266 pounds respectively. The 30 pounds-plus weight difference is why scouts initially suggested Land switch positions. However, he still hopes to be drafted to a franchise that will use him in special packages where he could get back to his passion of chasing down quarterbacks.
Like Land, former Jackson State product James Houston IV, a sixth-round pick by the Detroit Lions in last year’s NFL draft, is considered undersized for an NFL defensive end at 6 feet 1 and 241 pounds. Houston still managed to end his rookie season ranking second on the Lions in sacks (8.0) and sack yards (58), trailing only rookie first-rounder Aiden Hutchinson, who played 10 more games. Houston also recorded seven tackles for loss and a forced fumble despite playing in only the final seven games of the season.
Simmons believes Land could have a similar impact in the league if given the opportunity.
“[Scouts] saw last year with James that, you know, guys who have a knack for getting at the quarterback can do that at the highest level. Isaiah and James were the leading sack getters [in the SWAC] in the 2021 season, and James carried that on to the NFL the latter half of this past season,” Simmons said.
“Isaiah has those same intangibles and tangibles as far as being able to get to the quarterback. … I do think it [disproves] the narrative that a small-school guy can’t come in and dominate early at the highest level.”
Being underrecruited, overlooked and undersized are chips Land carries on his shoulder daily. When Land heard scouts describe Houston the same way, he empathized with his former SWAC rival.
“It honestly gives me confidence playing out there with them every time when watching people like James Houston go to the NFL,” Land said. “James Houston has one of the best stories for me because he had an underdog story. My whole life I was an underdog, so I kind of look at people like that.”
Florida A&M defensive line coach Milton Patterson, who describes Land as a gentle giant off the field with a high football IQ, frequently compares Land to three-time Pro Bowler Robert Quinn. Patterson coached Land for the last two years and saw him grow from a two-sack edge rusher into one of the nation’s leading sack getters.
Land finished his junior season leading the FCS in total sacks (19) and sacks per game (1.58); he was one sack shy of tying the Rattlers’ single-season record of 20, according to Josh Padilla, FAMU’s director of athletic communications. Land spent most of his senior year fighting through chip blocks from opposing tight ends and double teams from opposing offensive lines but earned 8 sacks, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery. Over his junior and senior seasons, Land also recorded a combined 37.5 tackles for loss and 66 total tackles.
“He’s an eager learner and an ultimate competitor. He’s willing to be taught. He’s gonna be asking questions, he’s gonna be very attentive when you get him in the room, and then once he gets the information, the knowledge, he’s just gonna be an ultimate competitor,” Patterson said. “He’s gonna compete, no matter who’s in front of him, no matter who’s behind him. He’s just gonna work his tail off.”
The Buffalo, New York, native who etched his name in Florida A&M history books almost played his final year of college football elsewhere.
When Land entered the transfer portal on May 1, 2022, the last day to be eligible for the fall football season, his phone chimed with texts and calls from coaches from all over the country. He posted on social media offers from SEC schools LSU, Georgia and Auburn, among others.
“Watching [Markquese] Bell go undrafted and watching a lot of the top HBCU players go late into the draft, I was just thinking I should put myself in a better position to get drafted high, because a lot of scouts don’t respect the level of ball we play,” Land told Andscape in August about his decision.
Four days after entering the portal, Land announced he would return to Florida A&M for his senior season, citing his loyalty to the program that gave him his only Division I offer out of high school.
“It felt good to get all those schools that I wanted to go to as a kid growing up hitting my line and stuff, but it didn’t feel right going into one of those schools,” Land said. “One of my teammates told me, like, he wasn’t telling me to stay or to leave, he was just telling me, like, ‘Do you want to play a last down of football with some people you know or some people you don’t know?’ I didn’t want money or publicity to be the main reason why I left.”
For Simmons, Land’s athletic career at FAMU set the example for the entire position group.
“His motor never stops. … Probably about half [his sacks] were sacks with his second [or] third effort,” Simmons said. “But his motor is really what makes him an elite pass rusher. … He’s not gonna give up until that ball is thrown or the quarterbacks on his back.”
Patterson said Land has shown other FAMU players what’s possible.
“He laid a solid foundation that if you just put in the work, if you trust the process, put your blinders on to things you can control and focus on your craft, then sky’s the limit,” Patterson said.
Land’s final workout in front of NFL scouts occurred at Florida A&M’s Pro Day on March 31. According to athletic officials, 24 NFL scouts attended Pro Day, and Land was ecstatic to see scouts traveling to Tallahassee, Florida, to see HBCU players.
“It feels great to bring the recognition to HBCUs. I remember my cousin, he went to an HBCU before, like, way before I even attended college and it was rare for them to even see an NFL scout in the first place,” Land said.
A year ago Land’s biggest concern was positioning himself to get drafted. Now, he is embracing the opportunity to serve as an example for other HBCU players who want to play in the NFL.
“I really just want to be the person that, like, gives people motivation and hope because they did for me. I just needed to see somebody do it. When I seen [Shaquille] Leonard become rookie of the year it made me feel like I could do it,” he said.
“So I feel like if I go to the draft as undersized, keep my weight up and just do what I need to do, I feel like in the end it will show kids just keep going. No matter their size, no matter what school they at, they can always get an opportunity. You just keep playing hard.”
2023 NFL draft
When: Thursday through Sunday
Where: Kansas City, Missouri
Watch: ABC, ESPN, ESPN Deportes, NFL Network