Small-school UDFA Isaiah Land now hopes for same Cowboys fate as college teammate
In the spring of 2022, Florida A&M linebacker Isaiah Land watched a supremely talented Rattlers teammate go the entire NFL draft weekend without hearing his name called. With one year left, he worried he might also fall through the cracks for having attended a lesser-known program, despite having just turned in a record-breaking junior season.
Land took some drastic steps to boost his draft stock and perhaps change his own fate for 2023. A year later, though, he is following the exact same path as that college teammate.
Now instead of trying to write a different ending for himself, Land is hoping he’ll also wear the star this fall, right alongside Markquese Bell as an official member of the Dallas Cowboys.
Fitting, since it was the club’s initial interest in Bell that first got Land noticed by Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.
“I’ve had my eye on ‘Zay’ for some time,” Quinn told reporters this weekend at the conclusion of the Cowboys’ rookie minicamp. “I first saw him [while] looking at Bell from a year ago, and he had a fantastic junior year, Zay did. He had over 20 sacks and really lit it up. ‘Who is this guy?'”
Land’s breakout junior year had a lot of football front-office types asking that same question. After posting decent stats as a redshirt freshman and then seeing the Rattlers’ 2020 season wiped out due to COVID-19, Land was a man possessed in 2021. He led the nation in sacks as well as tackles for loss and was named the Buck Buchanan Award winner as the FCS national defensive player of the year.
But after watching Bell go undrafted through seven rounds of the 2022 draft, he immediately entered the transfer portal. Several premier programs apparently came calling; Land’s own social media suggested that Texas, Auburn, LSU, and national champs Georgia were among the Power Five suitors to line up and make their sales pitch to the 6-foot-4 Buffalo native.
Even Cowboys Hall of Famer Deion Sanders took notice but urged Land, “Be the change; don’t run to change,” while speaking in an interview.
Sanders, it could be argued, ending up ignoring his own counsel by bolting Jackson State for Colorado after the 2022 season.
Land was turned off by Coach Prime’s advice, arguing that, thanks to their high-profile coach, Jackson State’s players “are taken care of as if they’re in the FBS,” and his own Rattlers team occupied a very different place within the larger college football landscape.
Nevertheless, he stayed at FAMU, the school that gave him a shot when no one else would.
But Land’s final collegiate campaign got off to a rocky start when he and two dozen other Rattlers players were declared ineligible to start the season. The players called out “poor academic advice and compliance” as the cause of the punishment, which was rectified in time for Land to appear in FAMU’s second game of the schedule.
His senior season at that other school in Tallahassee didn’t result in the same eye-popping numbers as 2021, but a certain NFL defensive coordinator 900 miles away was still keeping watch.
“I kept up with him through the time, even with Markquese,” Quinn explained. “I remember telling Markquese at the combine, ‘Hey, Zay ran well. He did really good.’ He said, ‘He’s a dog.’ So, from that time, I’ve always had my vision on him: the size, the length … I know he can rush.”
Land, just like Bell, didn’t hear his name announced on draft weekend. But, as with Bell, Quinn and the Cowboys came calling shortly thereafter. And now Land looks to follow the same trajectory: making the final roster and perhaps even getting onto the field, as Bell did for over 100 snaps as a long-shot rookie.
Even if he doesn’t make an impact right out of the box, Land has intrigued Quinn for long enough that the coordinator seems content to play the long game with the 23-year-old, possibly turning him into a linebacker/edge rusher hybrid along the lines of Micah Parsons.
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“He’s somebody that I’m excited to see,” Quinn said, “and there is no timeline on that. Development takes time. You’re not going to get there in one day or two days. We’re going to be in this for the long haul and see what they can do.”
Small school, big school, draft pick, UDFA: none of it really matters now that Land is in the building. It’s what he does with the opportunity right in front of him.
Quinn expects Land to do what he did 29 times before when an opposing quarterback was unlucky enough to find himself in the same spot.
“I don’t want a player to play slowly because they’re overthinking,” Quinn said. “My job is to make them play fast and clean and where they can go and they can go hit.”
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