Canadian OL Adams taking the long path to potential NFL career
Playing in the NFL was always on his radar, even if Isaiah Adams wasn't exactly sure how he'd get there.
But after playing for three different college programs in two countries the last five years, the hulking six-foot-five, 320-pound offensive lineman from Ajax, Ont., is on the brink of hearing his named called at the 2024 NFL draft in April.
"Yeah, I don't think many kids from Canada have taken this route," Adams said recently. "I've been fortunate to play at so many different levels and face a lot of great competition.
"It's really been a unique journey so far."
After finishing high school in Ontario, Adams began his college career at Wilfrid Laurier before heading to Garden City Community College in Garden City, Kan. Adams spent one year there then enrolled at the University of Illinois, where he's played the last two seasons.
Adams, 23, made 25 straight starts at Illinois. He earned third-team All-Big Ten honours in 2022 and was an All-Big Ten honourable mention in 2023 when also serving as a team captain.
Adams is projected to go in third round of the '24 NFL draft.
"I remember talking to a CFL agent after my sophomore year at Laurier and asking, 'Hey man, how do I get to the NFL combine?' Adams recollected. "I didn't know if it was attainable and I certainly didn't know the route regarding how I was going to get there.
"But it was something I was fascinated with and was always striving for."
Adams said the jump from U Sports to the NCAA was a big one. But his time at Laurier helped make the transition more seamless.
"The trenches are the trenches, no matter if its U Sports, junior college or Division 1," he said. "I think that battles are going to be the same, the mentality you want to have is going to be similar.
"At Laurier, I was lucky to play against Robbie Smith (current Toronto Argonauts defensive lineman) and I've got to thank him because he showed me so much off the jump. Going from that to junior college, I was almost a step ahead at that level and then from JUCO (to Illinois) was a gradual progress."
An adjustment Adams has had to make in U.S. football is defensive linemen not being a yard off the ball.
"It definitely was because the game comes at you faster," he said. "In Canada, you want to get a lot of depth and start that battle a little bit deeper whereas in the U.S. you know it's going to come right away so you want to be in a position to start from the initial set.
"You don't want to have a wide set. You kind of want to stay inside out because you know that fight will be on you right away."
Adams faced prime competition at Illinois, which plays in the highly touted Big Ten Conference. But he said the biggest lesson he learned there was the importance of preparation.
"The biggest lesson I got was confidence comes from hard work," he said. "Maybe in years before, I thought the most talented guys are the most confident guys.
"When I got to Illinois, I really was trained by a very good O-line coach (Bart Miller) and Bret Bielema was a really good head coach who really hammered on confidence coming from your hard work. That's something I will always remember. It doesn't matter how talented you are, it's the hard work you put in that breeds confidence."
Growing up, Adams' sport of choice was hockey. He cites many many people — including his family — with being key to his successful transition to football but says Josiah St. John, a fellow offensive lineman currently with the CFL's Edmonton Elks, had the biggest influence.
St. John, 31, played collegiately at Oklahoma before going first overall in the '16 CFL draft to the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
"He's the one guy in particular who's gone out on a limb for me," Adams said. "He's like a big brother to me, has been for a while.
"I was able to watch his journey and see how it all unfolded. We have a great relationship . . . he's been able to tell me what to do, what not to do, what to look out for. Learning from him has been an unreal opportunity."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2024.