After his sixth straight day of practice, with the temperature mercifully under 90 degrees, Isaiah Likely headed for one end of an autograph line spanning the length of a football field at the Ravens’ facility in Owings Mills. The rookie tight end has been a training camp sensation for less than two weeks now, but word travels fast. Already, fans on Saturday recognized Likely. They wanted his signature, a picture, something to remember him by.
Production hasn’t been a problem for the fourth-round pick. At Coastal Carolina last season, he had 912 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. At mandatory minicamp, he caught quarterback Lamar Jackson’s eye with diving catches. And in training camp, he’s been one of the Ravens’ most consistent receivers, with his ball skills and football IQ earning Likely comparisons to teammate and All-Pro Mark Andrews.
“Great hands, great route running for his size,” wide receiver James Proche II said Friday. “He can stick and move. ... He just has great movements for his size [6 feet 4, 235 pounds], and I think that’s the most impressive thing.”
Before enjoying Sunday’s day off, Likely spoke with The Baltimore Sun about what he’s learned from Andrews, his regular battles with rookie safety Kyle Hamilton, why he’s faster than his “track speed” suggests and the merits of being the “king of the jungle.”
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s it like to have fans already knowing who you are?
Really, an exciting experience. I mean, you’re finally looked at as one of those superheroes you grew up looking at when you were a young kid. So just blessings.
Who’d you look up to as a football player growing up?
I’ll really probably say Antonio Gates, Julio Jones. I was a wide receiver in high school, so really just some of the greats. And Antonio, just coming from a basketball background and doing what he did as one of the best tight ends of all time in the league, he was obviously great.
One of the quotes from your predraft process that stood out was, “Be where your feet are.” How does that mantra resonate on a day like today, during a week like this, a camp like this?
Really, just keeping the main thing the main thing. I’ve been playing football since I was 4 years old, so just really being where my feet are and really just being a sponge when it comes to veterans. Whether it’s in the run game or whether it’s in the passing game, Mark’s just a great, fantastic veteran to have in front of you and teach you. Same with [tight end] Nick Boyle and [fullback] Pat Ricard. I mean, they just help me in every little way possible to try to create and make me take that next step in being a great tight end in this offense.
In camp a couple of years ago, another Ravens tight end said that one of the advantages of working under Mark was that he could steal things from him to help his game. Is there anything you’ve picked up from Mark that has really helped elevate your game?
Really, just hearing how he goes about coverages. I mean, Mark’s one of — not one of, the best, probably, route runner when it comes to zone coverages in this league. When we come to practice, I ask Mark, before he even turns on the film, I’ll be like, “Mark, I saw you run a route today, and you knew it was ‘Cover 4′ before they were even in Cover 4.” He’ll just tell me what he’s seen from either the linebacker stance or a safety rolling deep.
And it’s just fantastic because it’s stuff that, in college, you look over because you’re one of the guys to just get the ball and make the play. Now you’re finally playing guys where every level is the same because it’s the NFL, it’s the best of the best. So just hearing what he has to say between that is a blessing in disguise.
During the predraft process, it sounded like you prided yourself on understanding what the defense was going to do.
One hundred percent. I love film. I love watching film. I love knowing what the defense is doing before they do it, because football is a game of inches. So if you have a one-up on your opponent, you’re always going to have the best of them. But like I said, in the NFL, defenses know how to disguise it the best. So having Mark being the best tight end in the league right now, just going in and really just being able to dissect defenses before they even come out ... is just something that I obviously have to bring my game to another level for.
At the Senior Bowl, people were talking about you potentially being the best tight end in this draft class. Then at your pro day, you ran a 4.80-second 40-yard dash, and your three-cone drill wasn’t as fast as maybe some expected. Did those times surprise you in any way?
The numbers are the numbers. At the end of the day, I keep the main thing the main thing. I play football. You turn on my film, you can see I don’t run what I ran. You can see I make cuts. You can see I’m explosive. You can see I stretch the defense. So I’m just blessed to be with the Ravens and just show them the talents that they’ve seen on film are the same I do in person.
So how do you explain a guy with 4.8 speed pulling away from cornerback Brandon Stephens on the second day of camp for a 55-yard touchdown?
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It’s just something that — I’m not a track star. I play football. I mean, at the end of the day, I play football, since I was 4 years old. So football speed and track speed are two different things. But when I get on the field, there’s definitely two different types of speeds.
It seems like you and Kyle Hamilton really relish going up against each other in one-on-ones. Is that just a case of “Iron sharpens iron”? Because it seems like you guys are pretty exclusive in one-on-ones.
[Laughs.] Yeah, me and Kyle, we love going up against each other. Like you said, iron sharpens iron. Me and Kyle really just look at each other to get better every day, day in and day out. And we’re obviously going to make the best out of each other because, when the preseason comes, and then after that, we’re into the regular season, so it’s best on best for 17 weeks straight. And at the end of the day, we’re trying to get to a Super Bowl.
You put a lot of guys on their butt as a blocker in college, but what’s it like going from that level of competition to the NFL, where maybe you’re taking on a 260-pound outside linebacker who’s been in the league for five years?
It just comes back to, really, the basics, the fundamentals. At Coastal, playing at that level, Division I-caliber, you play Power Five [conference schools] every week, so you’re just always having that size advantage or really just that advantage of being more athletic than a person at times. So now you get into a league where everybody’s athletic, everybody’s the best of the best. So now it just comes down to who masters the fundamentals, even when they’re tired. And that’s where Coach G-Ro [offensive coordinator Greg Roman] has been helping me a lot.
Last question: Can you tell you me about the origin of your Twitter handle, DaGorilla4?
Everybody wants to be king of the jungle, but I’m different. ... Everybody wants to be a lion. Everybody wants to be the quote-unquote king of the jungle. But a lion never tests a gorilla. And that’s what I am. I ain’t never been tested. So I’m a gorilla.