Strong safety Isom big on football goals

Aaron Blake

When Minnesota senior free safety Justin Isom talks about the small schools that recruited him out of high school, he emits a dismissive scoff.

During his senior year at Wayne High School, he saw a Southwest Ohio All-Star game as a chance to improve his recruiting stock.

He intercepted a Division I-A-bound quarterback three times … in the second half alone.

“I kind of wanted to set the tone and send out a message to some schools, saying I could play some ball,” Isom said. “Nobody got that message – nobody big enough for me.”

Despite a smaller stature and little interest shown in him during high school, Isom has climbed up to the Division I-A level he fixated himself on long ago.

Though he had to show some initiative to get Minnesota’s attention after one year at Division I-AA Butler, Isom has been a solid contributor during his two-plus years on the field.

He played perhaps his strongest game Saturday at Illinois with eight tackles and a drive-thwarting interception at the end of the first half which restored momentum to the 24th-ranked Gophers (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten).

Isom said the cornerback mentality he clings to makes him look for the interception on every play.

A big reason he led the team in picks last season is how he prides himself on film study and seeing the whole field.

“He’s one of our smartest ball-players on the field defensively,”

defensive tackle Darrell Reid said. “He’s kind of undersized, but it doesn’t really make a difference. He comes up with big plays all the time for us. He’s willing to stick his nose in there, and he reads quarterbacks so well.”

Isom said the 5-foot-8, 185-pound frame Reid refers to has been a battle all his life, and that it might be why he didn’t receive much attention from bigger schools coming out of high school.

So he bided his time and walked on at Butler, where he started at cornerback for one year.

But playing the likes of Austin Peay and Drake in the Pioneer Football League wasn’t good enough for Isom.

So he called Minnesota assistant coach Vic Adamle and compiled some video in hopes of catching on with the Gophers.

“I didn’t want to be one of those guys – 10, 20 years down the line – thinking, ‘What if?’ ” Isom said.

” ‘What if I had played big conference football?’ “

Adamle must have liked the initiative and talent he saw.

Isom came to Minnesota and, after sitting out the 2000 season because of NCAA transfer rules, started five games in his first season.

He played safety last season and started all 13 games after Jack Brewer graduated to the NFL. But he was projected to switch back to the position he’s most comfortable in before this season.

Isom played cornerback in spring practice season after Michael Lehan followed Brewer to the next level, and fellow strong safety Justin Fraley spent some time at Isom’s former position.

Redshirt freshman Trumaine Banks’ emergence at cornerback during the summer sent Isom back to strong safety, where he and Fraley have split time this season.

“Isom’s a spare part,” Gophers coach Glen Mason said. “He can play corner and he can play safety. What we’ve got now (at each position) is what we started from day one, and it seems to be working out. Barring injury, that’s what you’re going to get.”

Both Justins have had their moments this season, solidifying the Big Ten’s third-ranked pass defense.

Banks was noticeably picked on during Saturday’s game, but Mason said the way he responded to it is encouraging.

Isom admits he loves when opposing offenses put a third receiver on the field, giving him an opportunity to use his cornerback-like skills, mentality and size.

That size has proven to be a mere statistic because of Isom’s big plays, big mental game, and big dreams.

And leave it to Isom to aim high once again after he’s done playing football.

He plans to take the LSAT on Feb. 7.

“My ultimate goal is to go to law school,” Isom said. “I’m interested in corporate law – mergers and acquisitions. If I’m going to do it all, I might as well do it big. Just like if I’m going to play football, I might as well play in the Big Ten.”