PULLMAN – There might not be a more multifaceted Washington State football player than Daniel Isom.
Consider the veteran defensive back’s athletic background: Growing up in St. Louis, his interest in sports began with hockey at around age 4. Isom said he soon developed a passion for basketball, then – at about 9 years old – football came into the picture.
In his teenage years, Isom embraced track. He was a superb prep hurdler at St. Louis University High, collecting three Class 5A Missouri runner-up medals as an upperclassman – two in the 110, one in the 300. He owns the school record in the 110 at 14.45 seconds.
“He’s a good golfer, too,” WSU coach Nick Rolovich said.
But Isom’s physical tools ended up translating best to the gridiron, where he has continued to make a name for himself as a versatile athlete.
The 6-foot, 194-pound graduate student has started for the Cougars at strong safety, free safety, nickel and cornerback since his first season on the Palouse in 2019.
“You can put me anywhere, and I’ll have fun playing it,” he said.
Isom, a sixth-year collegian and team captain, made the move from strong safety to nickel last week to make up for a couple of injuries at the latter position.
He “performed well” in the Cougs’ 44-24 rout of Portland State, Rolovich noted.
Isom totaled two tackles, a quarterback pressure and a third-down pass deflection in single coverage.
“I think Isom, for his versatility,” Rolovich said when asked who stood out to him in Week 2. “Watching some of our stuff from last year, then watching him play this year, it seems like he’s playing faster.
“He came off the edge (vs. the Vikings), chasing down the quarterback on a boot or a sprintout or something, and he really looked like he was covering some ground. Playing fast probably has something to do with his comfort level in the defense, too.”
Isom started at strong safety in Week 1 against Utah State, but only played for about half of the first quarter before exiting for the remainder of the night with an injury, which apparently didn’t hinder him much.
“He got up to speed in a week,” safeties/nickels coach Mark Banker said of Isom’s transition to a new role. “It wasn’t perfect, but it looked like football at the Pac-12 level.”
Isom’s positional flexibility has been an ongoing trend throughout his whirlwind career.
He played both sides of the ball in high school and was named an All-Missouri kick returner and an all-league receiver. Isom left St. Louis University High as a three-star offensive “athlete,” according to 247Sports.com.
Isom signed with Northern Illinois, and the Huskies put him at cornerback. He played 10 games during his true freshman season in 2016, recording 41 tackles and breaking up six passes. A preseason knee injury forced him to redshirt the following year.
Isom sought a change of scenery, so he went the junior college route and played corner for Iowa Western Community College in 2018.
“I wasn’t unhappy there (at NIU), but I felt it was time to move on after my injury,” said Isom, who was an All-Region pick at Iowa Western.
“In juco, I had a really good coach who taught me a lot about playing corner. I learned a lot about the position while I was there and was around good people. I really enjoyed my time in juco.”
Former WSU coach Mike Leach recruited Isom, who was ranked the No. 8 JC corner in the country by ESPN and moved him to strong safety. Isom started five games at that position and another at cornerback after defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys left the program in October.
Late in the year, Isom was dismissed from the team for unspecified reasons.
“It was just circumstances that were unfortunate,” he said, politely declining to offer more than that.
He spent several months away from football working on a degree in social sciences, finishing this spring. Isom missed the sport and his teammates dearly during the stretch.
When Rolovich was hired in early 2020, Isom reached out to the new coach “because I really do love this team, and I love the boys, so I wanted to come back and play with the same people,” Isom said.
“I didn’t want to start over again. I just hit Rolo up, asking, ‘Can I still be a part of the team?’ He made sure I was a good character guy and a good fit to come back. I’m glad he gave me a chance.”
Isom, who’s now plugging away at his master’s at WSU, is making the most of his second opportunity, and it’s paying off for the Cougs as well.
He made another position change as a senior last year and started three games at free safety in WSU’s truncated season before lining up at strong safety in the Cougs’ season finale to fill a void. He led the team with 32 tackles on the year.
Rolovich must have liked what he saw from Isom at strong safety. The second-year coach locked him in at that position in the spring.
In his final college season, Isom has taken on more of a leadership role. He said he wants to be remembered most for being a team player.
“The other week they asked: ‘What do you want your legacy to be?’ ” he said. “I just want to be known as a good teammate, somebody you can come to, ask for help. That’s what we want to do around here.”
As for the position changes, they’ve been pretty seamless, he said.
It helps that the Cougars group together their safeties and nickels in the film room. Their all-encompassing approach to teaching DBs makes cross-training less complicated.
“You just want to pay attention to everything and soak up everything you can, so if the time does come, where you gotta move or something like that, you’re already one step ahead of the game,” Isom said.
He said he feels like a more well-rounded athlete. Isom already had a natural gift for covering receivers, but now he’s a more imposing hitter, with a better grasp on the intricacies of the rushing game.
“I understand so much more of the defense on pretty much every level,” he said.
His versatility has been a boon to the Cougars’ short-handed secondary, and Rolovich says it’ll aid Isom’s chances in extending his football career.
“He’s a smart football player who cares,” Rolovich said. “He’s able to process (position changes). He could probably play corner, too. It’s wonderful for us, but also when you talk about the next level, I think he’ll have a lot of (scouts) thinking.”
WSU was missing four key defensive backs against the Vikings, and the health of the Cougars’ defensive backfield remains uncertain. Rolovich isn’t revealing whether Isom will again line up at nickel or if he’ll slide back to strong safety when the Cougars host USC at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
“Personally, it doesn’t matter,” Isom said. “It’s all football, so any chance I get to play is fun for me.”
Isom’s family background features athletic versatility and discipline, traits which translate to his success. His sister, Alex, ran track at NIU, and three of his cousins – Briana (track, Drake), Amanda (field hockey, Bellarmine) and Ryan (football, UT Martin) – were NCAA athletes in various sports. His father, Daniel II, was the St. Louis police chief while the younger Daniel was in high school.
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