Between the highlight reels and the records, Georgia football fans are well-acquainted with the return game wizardry of Isaiah McKenzie by now. NFL fans could be the next to know his skills if the next few months go according to plan.
For three years with the Bulldogs, McKenzie’s penchant for the home-run play shocked sitting fans to their feet as they watched the diminutive receiver dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge would-be tacklers running at reckless speeds. One slight change of direction was all it took for hungry special teamers to be left in the dust.
So how exactly does McKenzie, all of 5-foot-7 and 173 pounds, manage to thrive on what some consider to be the most dangerous play in football?
“The secret is there’s no fear,” McKenzie told SEC Country. “There’s tenacity in everything I do. I can’t be scared to take a hit. It’s just no fear, having the confidence to go out there and do it no matter how big you are. I don’t look at it like that. I’m just as fast. I’m just as strong. I just have a different body figure.”
McKenzie finished his Georgia career with a school-record 6 return touchdowns, and it’s an achievement that probably beat his own college expectations. But those who know the wide receiver best saw this coming years ago.
‘A second family’
These days, McKenzie spends most of his time training at South Florida high school powerhouse American Heritage, where he first began wowing coaches and teammates as a sought-after high school star.
Back then, his teammates included Georgia tailback Sony Michel, Florida State cornerback Tarvarus McFadden and a litany of other future D-I football players. It was there that McFadden first coined the nickname that would follow McKenzie through college: “The Human Joystick,” a reference to his video-game-like agility.
“I remember that first year, he and Sony used to go back and forth about who was going to have more return touchdowns,” said Mike Smith, McKenzie’s trainer and the head strength coach at American Heritage. “They were both freshmen at the time. It was crazy, because Isaiah would take one back and then Sony would take one back. Isaiah would be like, ‘Man.’ Isaiah would take another one back. ‘I’m up one on you.’”
Coaches knew McKenzie had special talent — skills they couldn’t teach. As a football player, he was blessed. Away from the gridiron is where things weren’t easy.
Neither McKenzie’s father nor mother played much of a role in his upbringing. His grandmother, Valerie Mitchell, began raising McKenzie at 5 years old. She still sends Isaiah “positive notes” every day and remains a hugely important figure in his life.
“‘Grandma’ is definitely the center of his life,” American Heritage offensive coordinator Mario Perez told DawgNation in September. “Isaiah is very grateful to those who have helped him out in his life. His grandmother has been the one constant. She’s always been there for him.”
McKenzie would continue to face tremendous challenges growing up in the Carol City area of Miami Gardens, where shootings, robberies and other violent crimes were simply a part of life. They were all difficulties McKenzie had to confront at a young age.
“That’s where his toughness comes from,” Smith said. “Not the ideal family situation. It definitely shaped who he is. It’s given him that mental toughness. That’s where the fearlessness comes into play, too. If you’ve gone through some of those off-the-field things, there’s nothing on the football field that can really come close to fazing him. It’s been ups and downs, but that’s who’s made him who he is.”
Football became his escape — as it does for so many kids from rough neighborhoods — and after spending years trying to avoid trouble on the street, McKenzie proved unshakable on the gridiron. He emerged as a do-it-all threat for American Heritage, scoring touchdowns on receptions, carries and kickoffs, and became the guy who would “make something out of nothing” on every touch, Smith said.
As a senior, by which time he’d been rated a 4-star prospect by most major recruiting services, McKenzie accounted for 1,143 offensive yards and 14 total touchdowns on just 63 touches.
He even played a little defense when the need arose. Smith recalls one instance when McKenzie lined up as a cornerback and knocked the opposing team’s quarterback out of the game.
“He’s from Miami, and they pride themselves on speed, toughness. He’s every bit of what a Miami football player is,” Smith said.
In time, those around McKenzie at American Heritage — Michel, McFadden, Smith, Perez and others — began to fill a void that life at home simply couldn’t. So it only makes sense that the school became his training headquarters this spring.
“All the coaches, the fans, the parents. … They make me feel at home,” McKenzie said. “Even though I have a home, American Heritage is like a second family. I thank everyone for their help.”
Setting goals, breaking records
Were it not for a last-minute scholarship offer from Georgia, McKenzie might have ended up playing for archrival Florida or even Ole Miss. But on the eve of National Signing Day, Mark Richt swooped in and gave the South Florida product a chance to join his high school teammate, Michel, in Athens.
McKenzie, who had “no clue” the offer was coming and hadn’t even visited campus yet, pulled the trigger and signed the next day.
As a freshman, he quickly cracked Georgia’s return man rotation and scored punt return touchdown No. 1 just three games into his college career. The first victim, Troy, could only watch as McKenzie zigzagged 52 yards to the end zone.
He’d go on to score more return touchdowns over his first two seasons but never quite made a mark as a receiver on offense. Maybe that had to do with current NFL-ers like Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Conley getting a bulk of the looks. The Bulldogs shuffling through three starting quarterbacks and three offensive coordinators over McKenzie’s three seasons probably didn’t help things.
As a junior, however, McKenzie entered the fall with a simple goal: 600 yards receiving.
“I didn’t think it was really going to come true,” he said.
Turns out McKenzie was wrong. He broke out for a team-high 633 yards on 44 catches, on an offense that largely struggled to pass the ball consistently under freshman quarterback Jacob Eason.
“A lot of people are just labeling him as a return guy when he’s also a pretty good receiver … he can run the routes, catch the balls. He can do all that stuff,” Smith said. “He’s got a little bit of body of work there at Georgia. But it was just how they used him sometimes. It wasn’t always in the cards for him.”
On top of that, McKenzie completed what he considers his most impressive achievement to date by setting the school record for return touchdowns.
After the final game of his junior season came another surprise: McKenzie declared for the NFL. Reporters, apparently caught off guard by the decision, asked the wide receiver if he was serious. They weren’t alone; many fans didn’t expect him to leave with such limited playing time at receiver.
An “academic situation” also factored into McKenzie’s decision — one that would’ve kept him out of spring practice and forced an appeal in order for him to regain eligibility in the fall.
McKenzie was resolute. He already had consulted members of his inner circle and the Georgia coaching staff. All season he had weighed the pros and cons of the NFL, with his academic status looming large. By the time the Bulldogs’ bowl game against TCU ended, his mind was made up.
“I thought, ‘It looks like I’m gonna have a good season. I’m not going to get no taller. I might gain weight here and there, but I’m not just going to gain weight out of nowhere,’” McKenzie said. “As the season went on, I was like ‘You know what, it’s time to go.’”
Since then, McKenzie has been all business. He works out twice a day, gets massage work in between and catches up on sleep whenever possible.
In March, he was the only Georgia player to participate in the 2017 NFL Combine, where he ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash and posted the second-best 3-cone time in this year’s wide receiver class (6.64).
As he trains for the NFL, however, the goal isn’t as simple as 600 yards receiving; McKenzie wants to provide for his family.
To do that, he’ll have to crack a pro team’s 53-man roster this fall, which is no guarantee; NFL.com projects him as a sixth or seventh-round draft pick, and some have wondered whether he’s “just a return guy,” as Smith put it. Whether his size will translate to the league at receiver is another question teams will ask themselves.
Given the way NFL passing attacks have evolved in recent years, however, there’s reason to believe McKenzie could latch on somewhere. The most recent Super Bowl saw two undersized wideouts play major roles for their respective teams. Atlanta’s Taylor Gabriel, listed at just 5-foot-8 and 167 pounds, tallied 579 yards receiving and 6 touchdowns on the year. Julian Edelman, who measures out at 5-foot-10, caught 98 passes as Tom Brady’s go-to target last season.
“This (fall) showed he can be that receiver, he can be that slot guy,” Smith said. “He’s got that dimension to his game.”
The Super Bowl also featured McKenzie’s former Georgia teammate in Mitchell, who saw significant action as a rookie in New England. His success on the sport’s most visible stage has McKenzie setting his hopes just as high.
“Me and Malcolm have stayed in contact,” McKenzie said. “I spoke to him. I talked to him a lot, actually a few days ago. We just go back and forth. I just tell him ‘Hopefully I can do the same thing he did.’ Him going to the Super Bowl his rookie season, and doing a good job in the game and actually having a good season. I’m motivated to do that, too.
“I look at that and say, hopefully one day I can do that.”
Talk to McKenzie for any length of time and it’s hard not to like him. His personality and energy are infectious; both, Smith says, have attracted others to “The Human Joystick” throughout his life.
And that’s remarkable considering the many challenges that have shaped McKenzie’s journey. Several more obstacles lie ahead as he leaves Georgia to chase NFL riches. Not everyone may agree with that decision, but McKenzie can live with that.
He’s had to make choices like this all his life.
“He is very independent,” Smith said. “There are certain people that he’ll come to when he’s making his decision. That’s part of the upbringing, too. He’s had to make a lot of decisions from a life standpoint, and that’s carried over to the next step.”
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