In the span of about a week last summer when societal unrest and protests over racial injustices were sweeping through the country, promising sophomore cornerback Isaiah Herron entered the transfer portal with plans to attend a historically Black college in the South, where he grew up, then changed his mind and remained at BYU.
Fifteen months later, the African American from Atlanta who played high school football in Las Vegas is entering his fourth year at BYU and thriving on and off the field, said coaches, teammates and even school administrators who were involved in persuading the 6-foot-1, 180-pound Herron that he could use his platform in overwhelmingly white Provo to fight against racial injustice and promote diversity and equality as effectively as he could at an HBCU.
“A lot went into my decision to return,” Herron said Tuesday in a Zoom meeting with reporters as he and the No. 23 Cougars (2-0) continued preparations to face No. 19 Arizona State (2-0) at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN).
“There were some things that I was interested in and wanted to get involved in,” he continued. BYU administrators such as athletic director Tom Holmoe and school President Kevin Worthen “spoke to me about how I could make an impact here and just how I am a great fit here. We talked about everything, and I am just actually happy I stayed. Like I said before, it has been a blessing being here and being able to play under this coaching staff.”
Herron, who was recruited out of Arbor View High in Las Vegas, entered the season as a backup to starters Keenan Ellis and D’Angelo Mandell on BYU’s initial depth chart for cornerbacks. But cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford always considered Herron, Shamon Willis, Jacob Hayes and Jakob Robinson just-as-capable starting corners, so when Ellis suffered that scary collision in the first quarter of the 24-16 win over Arizona that would send him to the hospital for overnight observation, Herron took over Ellis’ role.
Herron got the start the following week in BYU’s 26-17 win over Utah, and not only recovered a fumble, but made two pass breakups and had two tackles. He is becoming a star.
“Oh man, he is living up to expectations. As far as everybody on the staff, we kinda looked at it like we had three to five starters all along,” Gilford said. “Honestly, Isaiah, Keenan and D Lo, those guys have been with us for some time and Isaiah stepped up and did everything that we knew he could do.
“It didn’t surprise anybody here. I am pretty sure it didn’t surprise any players,” Gilford continued. “The players know Isaiah and what he can do and the things he has been working on.”
Herron and his defensive teammates will have their hands full Saturday against the Sun Devils, who not only feature a sensational quarterback in Jayden Daniels, but a fleet of outstanding and athletic receivers. How will they deal with Daniels’ dual-threat ability?
“Great question,” Herron said. “You will have to wait until Saturday to see how that pans out. But overall, I believe in our coaches, and I believe in our game plans. So when Saturday comes, you will get a front-row seat to see how we are going to play.”
As for his own emergence, Herron called it “an honor” and said Gilford and his fellow cornerbacks have put him in the position to succeed.
“Seeing Keenan go down motivated a lot of us,” he said. “Seeing that drove me to want to play better. Of course, at the end of the day, we are like a family, so his injury drew out the best in all of us and we have just been rolling with it. It is honestly a blessing.”
Head coach Kalani Sitake said Ellis is still going through concussion protocol and is “still highly doubtful” to play vs. ASU, but is improving daily and is definitely not out for the rest of the season.
“Isaiah Herron, I have been really pleased with him,” Sitake said. “I am just really happy with the progress he has made, and glad that this is where he wants to be and this is what he wants to do.”
Sitake, Gilford and safeties coach/assistant head coach Ed Lamb all said they didn’t try to talk Herron into staying 15 months ago. Rather, they laid out the pros and cons and asked him to make the call on his own.
“We not only get him back, but we got him back with a little bit more of a mindset to buy into what this place is all about,” Sitake said. “You are seeing the results. He is a big-time player. … Really looking forward to seeing (the corners) compete this weekend against the great athletes that ASU has on the field.”
Junior college transfer Jacques Wilson recently became healthy enough to play and suited up against Utah after missing last season with a knee injury.
Wilson, and now Ellis, haven’t been rushed back into action because this is arguably the deepest cornerbacks group BYU has ever had.
Gilford said Herron has been instrumental in that rebuild.
“I never once tried to talk him about of leaving,” Gilford said. “Not once. I told him whatever he wants to do, I will be behind him 110%. If he wants me to call coaches, I will call coaches. I just told him the pros and cons of staying and things of that nature. I just told him to think about it, pray on it, and he came back wanting to be here.”
It was Lamb who found Herron in Las Vegas and started recruiting him to BYU. Lamb gave Herron his first Division I offer, offering him “on the spot” after watching him practice. Other schools offered Herron after word got out that BYU was interested, but Herron stuck with the Cougars.
“As a coach you make that first offer and you can see the joy and the wonderment and the dreams kinda flash across the face of the young man at that time,” Lamb said. “To see that and remember that, and then over the years to develop a relationship and see him go through ups and downs, it is just part of college and part of growing up.”
Lamb said he had a “lengthy conversation” with Herron when the player entered the portal, but stayed away from telling him what to do.
“I don’t believe in trying to talk guys into staying. I wouldn’t do that in any type of business,” Lamb said. “I don’t want people here who aren’t 100% sure that they want to be here.
“I think what that did is that it afforded him the time,” Lamb continued. “I think it was five days later that I got a call back from him where he appreciated the support and encouragement and the thoughts and wanted to know if we would consider taking him back. Absolutely, of course, I said. We are in this until the end for him.”
Herron said after he entered the portal he had a few meetings with Worthen and other administrators and discussed ways BYU could “change and make the university a bit more diverse.”
African Americans make up less than 2% of Utah’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and Utah County’s percentage of Blacks is even smaller.
“I have spoken with different programs that have been developed, just things like that,” Herron said. “They have put me in different positions to actually voice my opinion and get interested in certain things that I was in the portal for initially. It has been a blessing and I genuinely appreciate it.”
Gilford and Lamb said BYU is better because Herron stayed in Provo. On and off the field.
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