By ANTHONY SPAULDING
Director of Communications
Pope John XXIII Regional High School
There will be 336 players participating in the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine this week at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
The combine is a chance for NFL hopefuls to show general managers and coaches how fast, strong, and prepared they are for the pros.
One of those players is tight end Ryan Izzo, a 2014 Pope John XXIII Regional High School graduate and Vernon native.
Though there will be many high-profile players like Penn State’s Saquon Barkley or Southern California’s Sam Darnold getting all the attention, the 22-year-old Izzo and former standout for Pope John’s football team will try to catch teams’ eyes by continuing to do what has got him to this point: putting in hard work and being opportunistic.
“It feels kind of surreal,” Izzo said of having the opportunity to go to the combine — where he will showcase his skills to all 32 NFL teams on Saturday — in a recent phone interview. “I remember when I first played at Pope John and first left there to head to Florida State (University). Now that I am preparing for the combine, I’m enjoying the whole process and I’m going to try to make the most of it.”
Standing at 6-foot-5, 259 pounds, Izzo comes into the combine after having a successful three-year career with Florida State, where he declared for the draft following his redshirt junior season. Izzo made 54 receptions for 761 yards and six touchdowns while also proving to be a terrific blocker on the Seminoles’ offense.
Before his time with the Seminoles, Izzo had a stellar three-year career with Pope John during which he helped them reach the Non-Public, Group 3 final in 2013 and ended up as ranked the 18th-best tight end in the country as a recruit. Over his final two seasons with the Lions, Izzo had 63 receptions for 1,098 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Like all players at the combine, Izzo has had the dream of playing in the NFL since he was a kid growing up in the Highlands Lakes section of Vernon. Izzo feels he received a great foundation from his family, especially his parents Mark and Lorri Izzo, who are his source of inspiration.
“Just seeing how hard my parents work,” Izzo said. “My Mom works as a registered nurse and went to school. My Dad works hard in his career and coaching me. They have motivated me to work my tail off every day.”
In addition, Izzo felt Pope John head coach Brian Carlson did him a great service by helping him change positions before his sophomore season with the Lions. Izzo grew up playing quarterback.
“Coach Carlson thought it would be good for me to make the transition to tight end because of my size and athleticism,” Izzo said. “I trusted his judgment and it worked out great for me.”
Carlson said Izzo, who also played basketball at Pope John, was not only receptive to making the transition to the position, but showed how badly he wanted to succeed at the highest level in that role.
“He was one of the hardest workers in the seven years I’ve been here,” Carlson said. “I’ve always said to our people that if your best players are your hardest working players, your team is always going to be successful. He is such a great role model.”
Izzo’s way of playing the game certainly helped him make an impact at Florida State. He helped the team go 27-12, rank in the top 15 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll twice and notch wins in the Orange Bowl and Independence Bowl in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
As great as the records and bowl wins were, Izzo felt that he made a bigger impression on the Florida State program as a role model — something he learned from former tight end Nick O’Leary, who won the Mackey Award in 2014 and is now a member of the Buffalo Bills.
“The impact I felt I really made was showing the younger guys how to work,” Izzo said. “I mentored a lot of those guys like Naseir Upshur and Tre’ McKitty. I just kind of set the tone of how a tight end should work and play every game.”
Izzo’s impact certainly was not lost on Florida State’s former head coach Jimbo Fisher. Fisher, who left Florida State in early December to take the head coaching job at Texas A&M, had a lot of praise for Izzo before the start of last season.
“You don’t realize how many things he does for this football team,” Fisher said of Izzo to Safid Deen of The Orlando Sentinel. “You can always count on him.”
Since declaring for the draft, Izzo has been working out at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
He says its been “hectic” preparing for the combine, as he works out three times per day from Monday through Friday. He also had to undergo media training, watch his nutrition and work on all aspects of his game.
After all, he wants to make sure he shows “versatility” at his position.
“Tight ends in the NFL right now are more receivers and have strayed away from what they were in the past,” Izzo said. “You have to block as good as you can catch. I hope I can bring that to the NFL.”
Izzo says he has also received some advice from people who have been in the league, including his former Pope John classmate Noah Brown, who was drafted in the seventh round by the Dallas Cowboys last year. Brown became Pope John’s first graduate to play in the NFL, seeing time in 13 games with the five-time Super Bowl champion Cowboys and made four catches for 33 yards while playing 279 total snaps (161 on offense, 118 on special teams).
Izzo said Brown has been a huge help to him as well.
“We go way back,” Izzo said. “We’ve been friends since the seventh grade when we would play basketball against each other when he was at Mount Olive. He’s been great with me. I talked to him about the interview process and the medical process of the combine. It was insightful talking to him about it all.”
Izzo said he would love it if he gets to play in the NFL because it would be the first time Pope John had two graduates play in the NFL at the same time and it would help the school get some notoriety after what it had done for him.
“Of course,” Izzo said. “To think he (Brown) is with the Cowboys right now and I have the opportunity to also make a team and play in the NFL would be really cool for us and for Pope John. Pope John did such a great job laying the groundwork for me. It was one of the best decisions I ever made to go from Vernon to Pope John. They strive on being the best academically and in sports. They prepared me for the workload in college and Coach Carlson ran the football program like a college program.
“All of this has helped me be blessed with the opportunity to be a part of the NFL.”
As of right now, Izzo is projected to be either a fourth- or fifth-round pick, according to NFL.com. Izzo had been ranked as a top-five tight end prospect by ESPN’s Todd McShay and has been compared to Anthony Fasano — a Verona native who has played 12 seasons in the pros.
However, Matt Miller of Bleacher Report believes Izzo will be drafted in the top 100 and “might be willing to bet” that he goes in the top 75, which would put him in the third round or higher. Carlson believes that Izzo has a real chance to be drafted.
“He has a great shot,” Carlson said. “I knew he had the upside, but he has gotten bigger, stronger and better as the years have gone on. He was one of the few kids at Florida State who never came off the field. He is a unique kid. He will do well at the combine and get drafted high.”
If he does get drafted, Izzo will become the seventh Sussex County player to be drafted to play in the NFL. The other seven area players were Franklin's Robert Gunderman (19th round in 1957 by the Detroit Lions), Sparta’s Ed Fulton (third round in 1977 by the Los Angeles Rams), Sparta's Greg Baty (eighth round in 1986 by the New England Patriots), Vernon's Dan Murray (sixth round in 1988 by Buffalo Bills), Hopatcong’s Dave Yovanovits (seventh round in 2003 by the New York Jets) and Wantage's Nick Boyle (fifth round in 2015 by the Baltimore Ravens).
“It would kind of set a path for other guys from my town and Sussex County,” Izzo said. “(They will) know that even if they are from a small town, they can make it. It takes a lot of hard work, day in and day out, but hopefully this will show that dreams do come true.”
But, Izzo said he has not paid attention to all the hoopla surrounding the combine and is not going to start now.
Instead, he is going to do everything in his power to get noticed and take another big step into his career.
“I’m just going about my business,” Izzo said. “I have all the social media accounts and I grew up watching the combine, but I’m not big on worrying about what people are saying or thinking. I’m just trying to stay humble, working my butt off every day and trying to catch a scout’s eyes so their team can draft me and give me the opportunity.”