Last year, Tennessee Titans rookie defensive lineman Isaiah Mack was making plays down the road for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in the Southern Conference of Division I college football. Now, he’s making plays alongside star teammates like Jurrell Casey and Cameron Wake.
“It’s a little overwhelming sometimes because you grew up watching these boys,” Mack said. “Like I’ve told a lot of people, I saw these boys before I came here, so it’s a little bit of a cool feeling to get to be on the field with them.”
Last week, Mack, age 23, got to try his hand against future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady during joint practices.
“It was cool, I’m not going to lie,” he said. “Again, you grow up watching Tom Brady be Tom Brady, so when you’re on the field with him it’s a pretty fly moment, not going to lie.”
— Titans Film Room (@titansfilmroom) August 18, 2019
Mack grew up in the ultra-small town of Tunnell Hill in Georgia, a city with a population of less than 900. There, he attended Northwest Whitfield High School where he played football under head coach Josh Robinson, who is still with the program.
“It was wonderful,” Mack said of his high school. “Coach Robinson and all those at Northwest have done a good job at that program of getting them back to the playoffs back to back, and at the same time, he does a good job with his players. He doesn’t just treat us like some football players, he gets us in the community and he wants to know us as people.”
Twice during his high school career, Mack notched all-state honors, and he was also twice named the regional defensive player of the year. Mack was more than just a football player at Northwest Whitfield, though. He also competed as a wrestler.
“It’s a good sport,” Mack said. “It teaches you leverage, how to work with your hands. It did a lot to stay in shape…It was fun, got to tackle a lot of people, got to make it to the state level a little bit, so it was fun.”
GA to TN
A handful of smaller Division I schools—Middle Tennessee, Indiana and Georgia State, to name a few—had offers for Mack once he graduated high school. He chose UTC, and he did so primarily because of the comfort level it gave to his closest family member.
“Coach [Marcus] West and Coach [Will] Healy did a wonderful job of getting to know my mom, and once you’ve got mama, you’ve got me…We have an athletic director named Miss Lisa. She preached grades and everything, which is why I did a wonderful job at Chattanooga with my school. It felt like home, so that’s where I ended up going.
“My first two years, I ran a 4-3, and then my last year I ran a 3-4. In my four-man, I played the 3-technique, and in my three-man, I played the 4i.”
If Mack weren’t currently trying to make an NFL roster, he would be attempting to begin a career in law enforcement. His interest in the field was sparked during a class he took during sophomore year, after which he changed his major to criminal justice.
“I had a ‘violence against women’ class, and I just loved it, and I got to see how hard it is to be a woman in society. I wanted to make a difference. I was going to go into law enforcement. I loved my teacher, Ms. [Sara] Knox.”
Not Getting the Call
— Paul Kuharsky (@PaulKuharskyNFL) August 10, 2019
On draft day, things probably weren’t quite so comfortable for Mack. He went undrafted and was forced to sign as an undrafted free agent. He picked the Titans as his destination.
“It was a good time,” Mack said of draft weekend. “I got to hang out with my family. They kept me laughing and joking around, and just always said, ‘just wait for your opportunity and make the best of it.'”
Just a few months later, the opportunity Mack’s relatives spoke to him about seems to be coming to fruition. He has been a force for the Titans’ defense during the preseason, notching a sack and a fumble recovery over the course of the first two games.
He looks to have a legitimate shot, despite a tough numbers game at his position, to make the Titans’ final 53-man roster.
“It’s going good. Just trying to get used to the speed. But at the same time, it’s just fun to be around these guys. Every practice, every game is an interview. I’m just trying to make them know that I want to be out here and I’m going to do my best to be on the field.”
If Mack had to choose just one of the qualities that he thinks will make him valuable to the Titans moving beyond the preseason, he would go with his multiplicity. It’s a wise choice, as the Titans love players who can do multiple things, especially at the backend of the roster.
“I’m versatile,” Mack said. “I’m going to go wherever they want me to go, I’ll play whatever they want me to play. I’ll do whatever they tell me to do, that’s about it.”
Mack will learn his fate on August 31, when the Titans will be forced to trim their roster from 90 players to 53. He’s still a bit of a longshot, but to say he has a “fighting chance” would probably be an understatement.
Cover image (cropped from original): Bill Streicher/USA Today