The evidence was rather compelling during the first two quarters of the Ravens’ preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals on Aug. 21. That’s when Isaiah Likely, the team’s rookie tight end and fourth-round draft pick out of Coastal Carolina, announced himself to the local fan base.
Trotting out with the first-team offense in Glendale minus star quarterback Lamar Jackson, Likely was a revelation to fans who’d never heard of him before the 2022 NFL Draft or haven’t been privy to the glowing reviews he’s been generating since arriving at his first minicamp, let alone during this summer’s training camp.
Facing a third and 4 from the 50-yard line early in the opening quarter, Likely lined up behind a split-wide receiver near the right sideline. At the snap of the ball, he burst off the line of scrimmage running a crisp curl route.
As soon as he reached the first down marker, he abruptly turned and caught backup quarterback Tyler Huntley’s bullet pass, despite being draped by two defenders, to keep the chains moving.
Later during that opening drive, on a second and 9 from the Cardinals’ 44-yard line, he showed a flash of why his teammates and coaches are so excited about him.
Lined up in a three-point stance next to the left tackle, he exploded forward at the snap, running a corner route. Huntley was forced to improvise and scramble as the pocket collapsed.
Seeing his quarterback under duress, Likely abandoned script and ran back toward an open space and presented himself as a viable target.
Huntley was forced to throw on the run, off balance and across his body. The ball sailed and looked too high to corral, but Likely vaulted high off the grass and made the difficult grab look routine, locking his hands on it with Arizona safety Deionte Thompson attached to his back at the 38-yard-line.
The defender wrapped him up short of the first down marker, but the Ravens rookie took him for a joyride like the Superman rollercoaster at Six Flags and proceeded to shake free for a 20-yard scamper.
But the best highlight of the night wasn’t his 8-yard touchdown grab that showed his potential as a serious red zone threat — it was the preceding 31-yard catch and run on his previous reception.
With 4:47 left in the second quarter and Baltimore facing a second and 7 on the Cardinals’ 41-yard line, Likely lined up in the right slot of a spread formation, with about a five-yard cushion between him and James Wiggins, the opposing safety.
At the snap, it was apparent that the defensive secondary was dropping into man coverage. Likely ran a simple five-yard down-and-out and caught the ball two yards shy of the first down marker.
Wiggins immediately had two hands wrapped around his waist, but the Ravens rookie ran through the attempted tackle with ease, wiggling forward and stiff-arming two more defenders before being stopped at the 10 yard line after a 31-yard gain, setting up first and goal.
He was targeted eight times in the first half and caught all of them for 100 yards. In their first two exhibition games overall, the ball was thrown his way 12 times. He hasn’t dropped a single one, with 12 catches for a total of 144 yards.
Likely did not play in the Ravens’ final preseason game against the Washington Commanders on Saturday night.
“We expected him to be a really good player,” Head Coach John Harbaugh said at the postgame press conference after the Cardinals game. “To be honest with you, I’d say he’s exactly what we expected. He’s had some opportunities, he’s made the most of them. He asks good questions and goes to work every day, he doesn’t get flustered. He makes a mistake, he cleans it up.”
Lamar Jackson, who took a liking to the rookie after watching him at minicamp, has referred to Likely as “Mini-Mark”, in reference to Ravens All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews.
With an offensive coordinator like Greg Roman who emphasizes the use of the tight end as a major weapon in the passing game, Likely is excited about the role that he can play this year.
“Having the Ravens organization show me, hey, we can really use you in this offense, whether it’s you catching the football, whether it’s you in line, whether it’s one tight-end sets, two tight ends, three tight-end sets or even four, putting the best players on the field to win the game is obviously what they’re going to do,” Likely recently said on The Lounge Ravens Podcast.
“Not only is Mark Andrews in the offense, but you also have Rashod Bateman, so you obviously have him getting his touches and you know that most likely you’re going to be the third option,” Likely continued. “So now it’s becoming, how do I express my game more to be able to be a part of the offense and then highlight what I can do in the game?”
Coming out of high school in Everett, Massachusetts, Likely was not a fawned-over national recruit with the accolades of a 5-star ranking. But his prep coaches told recruiters from the Power 5 conferences that they needed to grab him, that the potential for future stardom was there. None of them listened.
And as they watched him develop into a force of nature at Coastal Carolina over the past few years and become an integral part of the Chanticleers’ climbing as high as a No. 9 in the Associated Press poll his junior year, many of those recruiters must now be kicking themselves.
His signature performance in college came last year against Arkansas State, where he was utterly transcendent. The highlight reel would leave the most seasoned NFL scout speechless.
Likely obliterated the Red Wolves defense with his eight receptions for 232 yards and four touchdowns, showing the speed, size, separation, power, hands, body control, technique and overall dominance that led one of the ESPN announcers to gush, “This is exactly why Isaiah Likely is going to be drafted very, very high in the next NFL Draft.”
As more Ravens fans become enamored with his ability as the regular season kicks off, the more they are going to want to know how it’s even possible that eight tight ends in this class were drafted ahead of him.
The Baltimore Banner reached out to a former teammate who practiced against him every day, as well as some former coaches at Coastal Carolina who witnessed his development during his formative years, to get a sense of who he is, whence he came and where he’s going. Here’s some of what they had to say:
Willy Korn, Coastal Carolina co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach
“Isaiah went to a smaller school outside of Boston before playing his senior year at Everett High, where he won a state championship. But he was an under-the-radar recruit. We’ve been fortunate enough to establish a pipeline from the state of Massachusetts, and Everett is a good prep program that we’ve gotten some outstanding players from.
“We watched his high school tape and he obviously had some good size at 6-foot-4. But what really stood out was that he had ridiculous ball skills. The hardest thing about recruiting tight ends is that the demand is high, but the supply of really good players is short. You might find a guy that’s a good blocker, but he can’t catch, or a good receiver that can’t block.
“With Isaiah, he was tall, had great hands and could do some special things when he had the ball in his hands. The question was, will he commit himself to the weight room and be able to put on some weight?
“His freshman year at Coastal, you could see how committed he was to become a great player. We could see him developing in practice, and the later we got into the season, the more playing time he got.
“By his sophomore year, his football intelligence really began to show. We were sitting in meetings asking ourselves, ‘How can we find some creative ways to get this guy the ball?’
“As a junior, that’s when people across the country started asking, ‘How the heck did this guy wind up at Coastal Carolina?’
“People talk about his physical skills, but he’s a smart player that can handle the preparation aspect of playing many roles.
“If you’ve watched the Ravens during the preseason, you’ll see that they’re doing exactly what we did with him. We played him on the line, at the X, the Z and in the slot. He’s not your typical tight end — he can line up all over the field.
“As a senior last year, he was already established as one of the best tight ends in the country. We played against Buffalo early in the season, and it was a close game that we wound up winning by three points. Isaiah only had one catch for six yards the entire game.
“I was disappointed in myself and apologized to him afterwards, saying, ‘We’ll do a better job of getting you the football.’
“And he was excited; he wasn’t the least bit upset and didn’t pout. He said, ‘Coach, we won!’
“But when I was reviewing the tape, I kept telling myself, ‘Hey Bonehead, get the ball into Isaiah’s hands!’
“He’s a fun-loving dude who’s just a big kid at heart. He’s always smiling and joking around. But don’t be mistaken — he’s also extremely competitive.
“Last year, we were down in Orlando playing Northern Illinois in our bowl game, and they had a suite and lounge area set up for us where we could just relax, and they had a pingpong table set up in there. I’m watching him win game after game against his teammates and my competitive juices start flowing. He was solid, but I consider myself a pretty good pingpong player.
“As I waited for my turn on the table, we start talking trash to each other. I’m studying his game, saying to myself, ‘He can’t beat me.’
“And sure enough, when we played, he smoked me.
“As an offensive coordinator, when you coach a talent of his magnitude, you can’t help but get excited about all the ideas that won’t stop coming into your head when you’re standing at the whiteboard. You can’t get creative if you don’t have the guys that can execute the schemes you’re cooking up.
“But with Isaiah, it’s like, ‘Hey, what if we did this? Let’s run that drag route we’ve been doing, but break it off into a wheel route.’
“Because his football IQ is so high and due to his study habits, he picks up things quickly. You only have to show him something one time and after a few reps, he’s got it down.
“As a coach, you dream about working with a young man that has all of the elements that Isaiah has: the size, speed, ball skills, playmaking ability after the catch, the intelligence, a hard worker and great teammate.”
Teddy Gallagher, former Coastal Carolina linebacker and current assistant linebackers coach
“Isaiah and I came in together in 2018, and he’s always been the spirit of the room, making guys laugh and just an overall great dude.
“As a freshman, you’d look at him and say, ‘Hey, this guy looks pretty athletic.’ And you could see that the sky was the limit for him in practice because he was making all these freak plays. Our first year, he only had 12 catches, but five of those were for touchdowns. And the more the season progressed, the more you could see him coming on.
“We matched up a lot in practice whether it be one-on-one in linebacker/tight end drills, 7-on-7s or full scrimmages. It was frustrating because he was catching everything. One time, I knew that I had him. The pass came to him, and I was right there. I punched the ball as hard as I could to knock it away, but as soon as I hit it, he got his hands around it and caught it. Man, as a defender, that was infuriating.
“Our college experience was incredible. Most of us were not highly recruited and our first two years at Coastal we went 5-7. But our last two years we went a combined 22-3 and cracked the Top 10 in the national rankings.
It was awesome how the school and the whole town rallied around us, and Isaiah played a big role in making that happen.
“He’s just a gamer. Whenever we needed a play, he made it. He was just a matchup nightmare because with his speed, linebackers couldn’t keep up with him and with his size and physicality, he’d just abuse smaller defensive backs.
“I remember being on the sideline against Arkansas State last year, and whenever there was a big play, it was like, ‘Is that Isaiah again?’ It seemed like every time I looked up at the Jumbotron, he was scoring another touchdown.
“And his success was not an accident; it was not a result of pure athleticism because he worked hard. He watched a lot of film on his own because in every game, he felt like there was a matchup that he could exploit. He never stepped on the field without being prepared.
“And the thing about Isaiah that separates him is that he’s a quality human being. A lot of people with that level of talent would not be as humble as he is. It was a pleasure to share a locker room with that dude.
“One thing that the Ravens fans are going to soon learn, and I’m sure his coaches and teammates have already figured this out, is that even when Isaiah is covered, he’s open.”
Jamey Chadwell, Coastal Carolina head coach
“When we saw Isaiah in high school, we saw a tall, slim kid with great ball skills and body control. He could really catch the ball and do some great things once he had it. The thing for us was projecting out if he could get big enough.
“During the spring practices after his freshman year, you could see him putting on weight and getting stronger. He was learning about the work ethic that it took to succeed, and he didn’t take any shortcuts or plays off.
“He wanted to be great, and the work that he put in showed that commitment.
“His freshman year, he weighed 215 pounds. His sophomore year he got up to 230. By his junior and senior year, when people started to realize that he was one of the best players in the country, he was up to 250.
“So early on, we were starting to get excited. The skill set was elite for his size and we saw his drive, how hard he worked. The only question at that point was the mental part of the game, because that can overwhelm some players, no matter how big or talented they are.
“But he put in the time studying, asking questions, watching film, and he seemed to have an advanced understanding about what was going on around him at all times.
“So we started adding new wrinkles in terms of where he’d line up in different formations, expanding the routes and his options on various plays, depending on what the defense was giving us.
“And that next question was, can he do all of these things without being overloaded with all of the responsibilities and information?
“And every time we added something, he absorbed it right away. There was never a steep learning curve with Isaiah. We’d tell him what we wanted him to do, putting him here, lining him up there, adding little nuances and wrinkles. He’d practice it once or twice and he had it down.
“The better he got and the more he began to assert himself as a force to be reckoned with, he remained very humble. He wants to be a great teammate in addition to being a great player, and that’s what separates him.
“I remember on that first day that he arrived on campus and reported for camp, his mom had a stroke. That could have wrecked him mentally and emotionally.
“But he knew that he wanted to make his mom, his family, his coaches and mentors that supported him back in Massachusetts proud, so he just focused on working hard, establishing himself, improving and being the best player that he could be. He’s just a quality person.
“There were some games where he didn’t see the ball, didn’t have as many throws in his direction that we would have liked, and he never once complained. And when you have guys like that, that’s why you win. He was selfless, loyal, loved being around his teammates and was just fun to be around.
“If the Ravens fully utilize his skill set, knowing how talented their quarterback Lamar Jackson is, and if he’s able to stay healthy, you’re looking at a player that has a legitimate shot at being the Rookie of the Year and a consistent All-Pro.
“That’s the type of ability that he has.
“He won’t be out running the streets at night getting into trouble. He’s going to embrace Baltimore, and the city is going to embrace him with open arms once they get to know him and see how great of a player, and a young man he is.
‘He’s going to do everything he can to be an asset to the organization, both on and off the field. People are soon going to be wondering, “How was he not the top tight end taken in the draft?’
“When you see Isaiah, please tell him that Coach Chadwell said the only downside to him is that he thinks he’s a good basketball player, but he’s not.”