June 9, 2014 at 1:00 am

Sam Webb

Ty Isaac puts family first in decision to join competitive Michigan backfield

Ty Isaac on his decision to transfer to Michigan: 'I didn't want to make this some big drawn-out process where I was going to a bunch of different schools.' (Chris Carlson / Associated Press)

“Family first” is a phrase that is given meaning by the sacrifices a family’s members are willing to make for one another. It’s a credo that many live by, and that is certainly true for new Michigan football transfer Ty Isaac.

One year removed from heading to USC to begin his college career, the former Joliet (Ill.) Catholic running back announced last week he will spend his final three years of eligibility in Ann Arbor. However, unlike most transfers, Isaac isn’t chasing playing time or trying to assuage home-sickness. His situation in the “Land of Troy” wasn’t at all uncomfortable. It was the situation back home, where his mother is battling serious health issues that gave him sleepless nights.

“It really was my mom,” Isaac said regarding his reason for leaving the Trojan program. “If you sit down and look at the end of spring depth chart, I was No. 2 on there. So I wasn’t worried about playing. You only get one mom. That’s just how I feel. Football is one of those things that is going to be there forever — not necessarily being able to play forever, but the game ain’t going nowhere.”

Isaac, on the other hand, is going somewhere. Once he determined that moving back to the Midwest was in his family’s best interest, Michigan quickly emerged as an ideal landing spot.

“They were in top three when I finished last time and nothing really changed there,” he said. “I didn’t want to make this some big drawn-out process where I was going to a bunch of different schools. It’s not like I have all of the time in the world to be fully re-recruited by a bunch of different staffs. Michigan obviously was at the top of the list of places I was able to go. I just felt comfortable there.”

But that didn’t mean the feeling was mutual. After finishing as the runner-up during Isaac’s intial recruitment, and with two other highly-regarded tailbacks in Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith poised to take over the backfield duties, would the Wolverines really want him? It wasn’t until his two-day visit to Michigan’s campus last week that he received a definitive answer.

“It was awkward at first because he had decided to go to SC first, but quickly that was brushed aside and it felt really good and really comfortable,” said Isaac’s mother, Karen. “The coaches were welcoming. Coach (Fred) Jackson was great. It felt like that’s where he should be.”

Said Isaac: “We talked about where they saw me. Obviously they’ve got a new offensive coordinator, so we sat down and talked with him about some things. It was kind of just making sure everyone is on the same page.”

No guarantees

The understanding that Michigan’s coaches were so emphatic about reaching was that there would be no guarantee of playing time. For Isaac to receive a portion of the carries that are now up for grabs, he’d have to earn them. He insists he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“They have some great backs there right now,” Isaac said. “What I’m going to do is come in, work hard, and try to earn a spot, wherever it may be. Just find my role on the team. I was with quite a few (Michigan players) Tuesday night. I saw De’Veon and Derrick. I think we all understand that it’s one of those things where competition isn’t going to do anything but help all three of us. I’m excited to get to work with those guys. I’ve seen them play and I think they’re really good. I think us three together is going to be something tough.”

It certainly looks that way on paper. According to Scout.com, Michigan now has the No. 1 (Isaac), No. 7 (Green), and No. 11 (Smith) tailbacks from the 2013 class on its roster. But in order for Isaac’s projection to become production, the Wolverines will have to show marked improvement on the offensive line. In addition, Isaac will have to receive a hardship waiver from the NCAA in order to be immediately eligible.

“When we decided that Ty was going to transfer we called the NCAA to find out the rule and exactly what we had to do,” Mrs. Isaac said. “We explained to them that he was coming home for a family member. I asked, ‘Will he be able to play next year?’ The woman on the phone said we like to use a loose rule of 100 miles.”

How loose that guideline really is remains to be seen. The NCAA adopted stricter criteria for granting such waivers two years ago. Old Dominion point guard Trey Freeman found out just how strict last winter. The former Campbell University standout transferred to a school less than 20 miles from his hometown of Virginia Beach, and his mother had been battling a painful bone infection called osteomyelitis for over a year, but the NCAA still declined his request. All Isaac can do at this point is wait and hope for a different outcome.

“We were told flat out that it’s not up to us as a family or Ty as an athlete to request the waiver,” Mrs. Isaac said. “It’s up to the school. So Michigan has to go to the NCAA and say we want him to be able to play this year because he came home for a hardship reason. That’s Michigan and the NCAA. I don’t know what kind of documentation we’re going to have to produce, but I have stacks of doctor’s visits and bills. I would be happy to give all of them to them. So I know that Michigan has to go to the NCAA and ask for Ty to play. I don’t know (how long the process will take).”

First step

Isaac expressed optimism when asked about the likelihood of receiving the waiver, but he understands the very real possibility that it could go the other way.

“I think he is prepared to handle (a denial),” Mrs. Isaac said. “I think he’d be disappointed. He wants to play. He is lifting every day and he is staying shape. I think he will be very disappointed if he can’t, but he knows that’s a possibility.”

In the grand scheme of things, though, he deemed that potential disappointment a small price to pay to be closer to home and playing for a program with which he’d already established a strong relationship. Being a car ride from his mom, as opposed to a plane ride, isn’t a matter of convenience. It’s a matter of her health. She has yet to receive a clear diagnosis for the litany of ailments that she has been stricken with over the past year, but she has received clear instruction on dealing with her very serious ear condition. She must cease so much flying or risk the total loss of hearing.

“I went to every game last year,” said Mrs. Isaac. “We started off in Hawaii in August and I ended in Vegas in December. When Ty went to USC we told him that myself or my husband and I both would be at every game. So we went to every game. As the season went on I couldn’t hear anything. The more I flew the worse my hearing got. It was a direct correlation. I also had a lot of pain when I flew. It was really bad. We had no idea that was going to happen because I’ve never flown that much in my life. It was shocking.

“I had tickets to the spring game and I cancelled them that morning. I told Ty, ‘I can’t fly. I can’t get out there. I really want to, but I can’t do it.’ It was at that point that he said, ‘We need to do something about this.’”

That “something” consists of more than just his transfer. That was merely the first step.

“I have a surgery that has to get scheduled,” she said. “(Michigan assistant) Coach (Jeff) Hecklinski’s wife is going to recommend someone for me up there at Michigan. My hearing is really bad and we’re trying to find a way to resolve that, but right now I feel OK.”

No, that doesn't mean her health has miraculously improved. It just means she is in much better spirits.

“It feels wonderful,” Mrs. Isaac said regarding her son’s move. “I’m so excited he is going to a great school with such a rich tradition. It’s amazing for my family. Everyone can go to the games because it’s close enough. And he can come home when he wants or needs to because it’s close enough.”

Sam Webb is managing editor of GoBlueWolverine.com and co-host of the "Michigan Insider" morning show weekdays on Sports Talk 1050 WTKA. His Michigan recruiting column appears weekly at detroitnews.com. For more on U-M recruiting, visit michigan.scout.com.

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