From wrestling to playing youth football, Clayton Isbell is familiar with keeping his weight in check.
But that doesn’t mean the sophomore safety at Illinois State can’t enjoy a burger and fries from his favorite restaurant back home – Beef Shack in St. Charles.
As a versatile defensive back for the Redbirds, Isbell can be found feasting on opposing offenses on Saturdays.
As part of Prairie State Pigskin’s Moving the Chains Q&A series, Isbell discussed moving around as part of a military family, his father’s skills on the grill, dream vacation spots in Europe and his most soulful ISU teammate.
Learn more about Isbell in our Q&A:
You’ve played both nickel cornerback and free safety. How do those two roles differ?
My redshirt freshman year, just playing nickel was a lot closer to the line of scrimmage. Everything would come at you a lot faster. Playing free safety this past season, I’m about 10-12 yards off the ball and able to see plays a lot slower. I also played nickel this year when it was a third-down coverage. I’m glad I can still play both. I really like safety because I can be in the middle of the field, and I like nickel because I can play man coverage.
In your high school recruiting profile, you were listed at 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds. At ISU, you are listed at 6-2, 220. How did you lose an inch in height?
Coming out of high school, I actually measured at about 6-2 ¾. So, I was close. I play now at about 215, 210 pounds.
Was it difficult to put on weight when you transitioned to college?
It was pretty easy. Growing up, I’ve always been around wrestling. (In youth football) I’ve always been at the 104-pound level. You had to be at 104 pounds to run the ball. So I’ve always had to cut and maintain weight my whole life. I got used to it.
What is your connection to the sport of wrestling?
I didn’t wrestle in high school. My grandpa was a wrestler at Northwestern and he ended up coaching high school wrestling. I wrestled for a club, just in third and fourth grade.
In your profile photo on the ISU website, you are wearing glasses. Do you prefer them over contacts?
I actually wear contacts during games. When I took that picture, I had daily contacts. Now I have monthlies and I’m able to use them for a month at a time.
On your Twitter profile, you have a unique photo of Albert Einstein. Tell us about it.
I was on Twitter about a year or so ago, and I found that picture of Albert Einstein teaching African-American students. Albert Einstein is obviously known as a really smart individual. I just thought that was a really cool picture.
You went to high school in St. Charles, but have you lived elsewhere?
My mom and dad (Clayton and Shawanda) met in the military. My brother was born in Germany, on an Army base. We moved around when I was young. They were stationed in New York, but that was when I was 2 or 3. I don’t remember a lot of those moves. We ended up moving to Illinois. We lived in Wheaton and then moved to St. Charles when I was in third grade. My older brother (DeAndre) is two years older than me but one grade above me. I have a little sister (Amarion) who is two years younger than me and two grades below me.
What has it been like taking classes in a virtual environment?
This past semester, I finished with a 3.25 GPA, which was nice. The semester before that, the first one during COVID when we went to Zoom, I finished with a 4.0. Those are my best two semesters here. My major is communications, and my dream is to pursue the NFL and become a coach at any level. I know I could be a great coach.
Among the Illinois State wide receivers, who is the biggest trash talker?
I’ve got to say my roommate, Tristan Bailey. He talks a lot of trash, and when I’m guarding him, we definitely go at it.
What was it like to tackle former ISU star and Jacksonville Jaguars rookie James Robinson in practice?
I actually have never tackled James. Anytime we were at the line of scrimmage, it never came to that point. Honestly, I would go for it (if I had the chance).
Who’s the best player in your college career that you’ve played against?
I would say (North Dakota State QB and NFL prospect) Trey Lance.
Other than Illinois State, who has the best uniforms in the Missouri Valley Football Conference?
I like the Western Illinois uniforms a lot. The purple and white is a good look.
St. Charles is part of the Tri-Cities with Geneva and Batavia. How would you rank the best cities in the Tri-Cities?
St. Charles would be No. 1, even if I lived in Geneva or Batavia. I would go Geneva, that’s a nice town, then Batavia. Batavia is just not as big as St. Charles or Geneva.
What restaurant in St. Charles do you miss the most?
There’s a restaurant called Beef Shack. The fries there are really packed and the burgers are juicy.
Summer and grilling season are getting closer. What’s the cookout food you love the most?
My dad can throw down really well (on the grill). He can make rib tips or a straight slab of ribs.
What’s the best advice your parents have given you?
When I was going into the football, some good advice I got from my dad was “Fear no one.” Growing up, I’ve always been in big moments on the football field. I learned at an early age that things are going to happen and it’s really about how you respond to those things.
If you weren’t playing football, what other college sport would you play?
I would love to play college baseball. I played baseball a lot growing up. I played center field and my vision wasn’t the best in the world. That’s not a good combination. (Laughs)
Do you have a favorite pro sports team or athlete?
My favorite pro team would be the Chicago Bears. My favorite pro athletes are (retired NFL safeties) Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu. Currently, my favorite is (Bears safety) Eddie Jackson.
The Fox River runs through St. Charles. What’s your favorite activity on the water?
In the summertime, my friend has a boat and we tube a lot in the river. That’s a fun time.
Who has the loudest fans in the Missouri Valley Football Conference?
A night game here at Hancock Stadium is a good time. I remember last year we played Northern Arizona in the first night game I’ve played here and that was fun. When you go to Fargo, it’s in a dome and they have a lot of fans and they definitely get into the game.
Since Illinois State opted out of the season in March, have you watched other FCS games?
Since the end of the season, I stopped watching live football. I still continue to watch old NFL games and (Illinois State) film.
Before a game, do you prefer quietly preparing of having music to pump you up?
I’m definitely a guy that walks around the field with music on, jumping up and down. I listen to J. Cole, and my favorite song is “Middle Child.”
Speaking about music, who is the best singer on the ISU team?
I don’t hear a lot of people sing, but my good friend and teammate Peyton Jones (a junior defensive back) definitely has the soul in him. He can throw back some R&B music.
If you had the chance to go on a dream vacation, where would it be?
It would be France or England. A good friend of mine went to England a few months back for the first time, and he said it was a great experience. He even told me he wanted to live there.