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Washington State football sees different Isaiah Johnson-Mack this season

Washington State wide receiver Isaiah Johnson-Mack has decided to wear the No. 9 this season in honor of former teammate Gabe Marks. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

LEWISTON – Coaches and teammates all agree: The Isaiah Johnson-Mack that left Pullman in June isn’t the same Isaiah Johnson-Mack that returned to campus in August.

The first difference is more of a cosmetic one. Johnson-Mack is wearing Gabe Marks’ No. 9 this season, rather than the No. 5 he wore in 2016. There’s not much of a story there – he just didn’t want the number to fall into the hands of a youngster who might be unaware of its significance, or unfamiliar with Marks’ achievements. So Johnson-Mack took it for himself.

“(Gabe) didn’t really say nothing. I just got it. I know what it means, though,” he said. “You’ve got to be on your stuff if you’re going to wear Gabe Marks’ jersey. I didn’t really want a young freshman to come in and not know what Gabe was, because I’ve seen what Gabe was and I’ve seen the tenacity he played with and the competitiveness. So I just tried to take that and just carry that on.”

That isn’t the change that has the Cougars gushing, though.

What they’ve always seen in Johnson-Mack is someone with fantastic height, fine tools and decent enough speed given his long frame. What they see now is a 6-foot-3 thoroughbred capable of winning footraces, doing all the little things right and thriving in coach Mike Leach’s pass-happy offense.

That’s what happens when you spend your summer with Anquan Boldin.

Boldin, a three-time NFL Pro Bowler who catches passes for the Buffalo Bills these days, was just one of the NFL characters who trained alongside Johnson-Mack this offseason at a facility in Boca Raton, Florida. XPE Sports is the name of the training center owned by Tony Villani, a speed and strength specialist who’s made it his life’s work to make the NFL’s best even better. He’s worked with a number of former stars, like Hines Ward and Cris Carter, and his current clientele list isn’t shabby either.

Travis Benjamin of the San Diego Chargers, Mark Ingram of the New Orleans Saints, Travis Kelce and Eric Berry of the Kansas City Chiefs and Coty Sensabaugh of the Pittsburgh Steelers were a few of the others who converged on Boca Raton this summer seeking speed, strength and, well, sun.

“It’s Boca,” Johnson-Mack said, “so it’s a nice to place to go live.”

But the WSU wideout was purely there for football and Johnson-Mack made a special effort to ensure he and Boldin were on a first-name basis by the time his summer break expired.

Johnson-Mack hails from Belle Glade, Florida, which is nearly 60 miles west of the facility he trained at but only 10 miles north of Boldin’s hometown, Pahookee. Boldin was a gridiron god for many of the area’s youth football players, including Johnson-Mack.

“I met him when I was like 5, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t remember me,” Johnson-Mack said. “I’ve always seen him around town and stuff … but he knows me now.”

As wide receivers, Johnson-Mack and Boldin come from the same mold. Neither has exceptional speed and although Johnson-Mack stands 2 inches taller than the 6-1 Boldin, it doesn’t mean he’s a giraffe who can win every 50/50 ball by simply getting off the ground.

“We’ve both got big bodies and we’re not like burner type guys,” Johnson-Mack said. “He’s good at running routes and catching everything.”

Few pro receivers are better than Boldin with the ball in their hands. That’s an area of Johnson-Mack’s game that could still use some work.

“He said he made money off of like yards after catch, like running hard and run everybody over, don’t go down,” Johnson-Mack said. “I just try to do the same thing because he’s been in the league so long, that’s the best role model you could have.”

But Johnson-Mack took bits and pieces from everyone in the room, not just Boldin. He learned something from Ingram, a tailback.

“Just the way he cuts,” Johnson-Mack said, “because I need to get more elusive with the ball in my hands.”

In almost every aspect, Johnson-Mack is a better product than he was before. It hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“He’s a little stronger, he’s in a little better shape and then he’s more consistent,” Leach said. “I think he’s become more consistent. If he has a bad play, he doesn’t dwell on it. He comes back and makes a play the next time.”

“I think right now, the effort and attention to detail combined is what sticks out the most with him,” outside receivers coach Derek Sage said.

So it must be true: The pros know best.