MEMPHIS – Most of us think about Isaiah McKenzie when he’s up and around and moving. The dynamic player nicknamed “The Human Joystick” is exhilarating to watch as he shimmies and shakes his way down a football field as a wide receiver and kick returner for the Georgia Bulldogs.
But Mike Rumph, who coached McKenzie at American Heritage High in Ft. Lauderdale, can’t help but think about McKenzie when he’s finally still. As in, asleep.
“You can’t even wake him up,” said Rumph, laughing hard at the recollection. “You can pick him up, you can carry him around, yell at him, he’s still asleep. That kid sleeps harder than anybody I’ve ever met.”
Rumph has a theory about that.
“Isaiah is just, like, non-stop energy,” said Rumph, a former University of Miami player who is now is the Hurricanes’ defensive backs coach. “When people are high-energy like that, all day going, all day talking, when they fall asleep, they fall asleep hard. That’s the way he is. When he finally goes down, he’s out.”
That meshes with the information offered by McKenzie’s new coach. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart marvels at the global-positioning numbers McKenzie produces daily at the Bulldogs’ practices. The Bulldogs, like most SEC teams nowadays, utilize GPS and microchip technology to monitor how much players are running, how fast they’re going, what is their heart rate, and so on. They use the information to monitor the health and wellness of their players, but also to show them how fast they are, how conditioned they are and if they’re loafing.
Those numbers cross Smart’s desk every day. And every day, Smart said, McKenzie’s numbers top the list.
He runs faster, longer and more than anybody also on the team.
“He’s so competitive in practice,” Smart said. “He returns every punt. He returns the punts for our ‘look’ squad and then he returns the punts for our return team. Then he goes back on kickoff coverage and returns kicks. He catches every ball, he wants to get in every rep sometimes, and he’s in for the ones and the twos. I love guys that just want to play.”
Every once in a while, because McKenzie’s numbers get so high, they have to shut him down. “Which he doesn’t like,” Smart said.
Both coaches agree, that frenetic energy is what makes McKenzie special. Yes, he has exceptional speed. Certainly those moves that he has to evade tacklers are God-given. But by and large, the kid just loves to play ball and compete. And move.
At the moment, McKenzie is the one thing that’s moving well in an otherwise sporadic Georgia offense. Heading into Saturday’s game against No. 23 Ole Miss, McKenzie leads the SEC in scoring with five touchdowns and the Bulldogs in both receiving (18 for 305 yards) and all-purpose yardage (152 ypg).
“He has only one speed, all out,” Rumph said. “And he’s fearless. When I first saw him out there running the ball, I cringed because I’m like, he’s going to get knocked out. He’s not afraid to run over people either.”
Becoming a dog
Georgia’s actually quite fortunate to have McKenzie on its roster. He wasn’t really on the Bulldogs’ radar until his senior season at American Heritage High, and then not until it was almost over.
Ryan Bartow, a national recruiting analyst for 247Sports.com based in South Florida, was there at the school the day former Georgia coach Mark Richt discovered McKenzie. It was in mid-December and Richt and running backs coach Bryan McClendon had come to American Heritage to check in their prized recruit — Sony Michel, a 5-star running back prospect and long-time commitment.
“They saw Isaiah catching punts and catching passes,” Bartow recalls. “Seeing his speed in person for the first time, Richt looks over at McClendon and ‘says you better go get that one for me.’ From that point on, it was on.”
Such was McKenzie’s recruitment. It was very late in coming and very intense when it arrived. Heading into that senior season, it was just generally thought that McKenzie was too small for FBS consideration. He weighed barely 150 pounds at the time.
But as the season progressed, he emerged as perhaps the biggest star on a loaded American Heritage team. In addition to Michel, they had Torrance Gibson, a junior quarterback who’d end up at Ohio State, Tarvarus McFadden, a junior cornerback who’d end up at Florida State, and Brian Burns, a sophomore defensive end who’s also now at FSU. And many others.
Initially, McKenzie kind of got lost among all those trees. But his kick returns and broken-field plays became the stuff of legend, especially as the stakes got larger on the way to the state championship.
“Every week we’d say, ‘they’re not going to kick to Isaiah,’” Rumph said of his coaching staff. “But sure enough, they’d kick it off to Isaiah. And nine times out of 10, he’d make them pay.”
Actually, Notre Dame was the first to take notice of McKenzie. They offered during the season and he accepted immediately. But it wasn’t really until January that McKenzie’s recruitment took off, not long after 247Sports upgraded him to a 4-star prospect.
According to Bartow, McKenzie received scholarship offers from Florida on Jan. 3, Oregon on Jan. 7, Wisconsin on Jan. 21, Ole Miss on Jan. 24 and Virginia Tech on Jan. 29.
Georgia’s offer was late in coming, too. In fact, the story of Richt reportedly insisting that the Bulldogs extend McKenzie an offer is the stuff of recruiting legend.
“Some friends of mine told me that he was a late signee that Coach Richt stood on the table for,” Smart said. “A lot of the guys on staff didn’t want to take him. But (Richt) stood up and said, ‘we’re taking the guy. It’s my call and he’s a special player.’ I’m glad they did. I’m very grateful. He was a teammate of Sony’s, obviously, but from what I heard he never even came on a visit.”
Bartow verifies that account.
“What sold it, obviously, was the guy Isaiah grew up kind of idolizing and carving his path after, a guy that was the same age as him, Sony Michel,” Bartow said. “So once Georgia offered, he knew he was going to follow in his footsteps.”
There are two people in McKenzie’s life who are most responsible for putting him in position to succeed. One is Mario Perez, the offensive coordinator at American Heritage. The other is his grandmother, Valerie Mitchell.
It was Mitchell who raised McKenzie and fought like mad to keep him out of the mean streets of Miami’s Carroll City. And it was Perez who mentored McKenzie once he got to American Heritage. He honed McKenzie’s football skills and provided the father figure that had been missing all his life.
“Not all of us are raised the same way,” said Perez, a fixture at American Heritage. “He just didn’t have anything. I’m not in position to talk about his mom. He knows his mom, but I don’t think he knows his dad. But his grandmother is his world. ‘Grandma’ is definitely the center of his life. 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.”
Valerie Mitchell actually makes it to a lot of McKenzie’s games. Perez does also from time-to-time. But he talks to McKenzie often.
And he’s not surprised to see what his former pupil has been able to do. The knock on McKenzie had always been that he simply wouldn’t be big enough to stand up to the rigors of major college football.
Now, three years into it, the discussion is about whether McKenzie can make it at the next level. There is precedent. Trindon Holliday, Dexter McCluster, Jacquizz Rogers are just a few of the pint-sized players who have found success in the NFL.
McKenzie’s South Florida support group has little doubt.
“I’ve always felt like he could get to that level one day, even in high school,” said Rumph, who himself played in the league.
Said Perez: “Isaiah is multifaceted. He’s such a weapon in the return game, he’s such a weapon in the passing game, and then you can jet sweep him, you can bubble-screen him. He can take a one-yard screen and make it look like a Heisman Trophy play.
“But the one thing people need to know about Isaiah, his heart is as large as he is.”
McKenzie is certainly playing big for the Bulldogs. In the last two games, Georgia’s opponents have stacked the box to put the clamps on tailbacks Nick Chubb and Michel. Georgia was held to just 101 yards rushing against Missouri.
But that just opened up the field for McKenzie. He hauled in a career-high 10 catches for 122 yards, caught two touchdown passes and scored on a six-yard run off a jet sweep. Including his two punt returns, he compiled 166 total yards.
Ole Miss knows that as well as anybody, and it will be bent on not letting No. 16 get loose like that again.
Easier said than done.
“This is the dilemma for defenses,” Perez said. “If you want to stack the box with eight guys, you better have somebody that can cover Isaiah. And not many people do. If you want to go out and play Cover Two or Two High, then you’ve got a problem because you’ve got two pretty good running backs in the backfield. It’s just that simple.”