The photos from Isaac TeSlaa’s official visit to Colorado were predictable, especially given the Buffaloes are led by a man who simply goes by Coach Prime.
With a last name like that, it was only natural that Deion Sanders would bring an actual Tesla vehicle to the coveted Division II transfer’s photoshoot.
TeSlaa seemed to enjoy it, but luckily for Arkansas football, it didn’t work. Of course, it’s worth noting that his name isn’t pronounced the same as the company run by Elon Musk.
The emphasis is on the second syllable rather than the first and the back half sounds more like “coleslaw” — teh-SLAW opposed to TEH-sluh.
“The name itself is French, but we’re pretty much 100% Dutch,” Isaac’s father, Mark TeSlaa, said after giving Best of Arkansas Sports the proper pronunciation. “I think the French Huguenots made their way to the Netherlands and I know my grandparents were from the Netherlands.”
Of course, that won’t stop fans — or, probably, the marketing department — from drawing the same connection as Colorado back in January.
One thing is for sure, though: Announcers calling Arkansas’ games on ESPN, SEC Network or CBS this year better practice it before game day because there’s a good chance he is one of the Razorbacks’ top wide receivers in 2023.
They’ll want to avoid being in the same position as Josh Pate, who openly admitted — after a couple of incorrect attempts — to not knowing how to say TeSlaa despite heaping praise upon him and identifying him as a “sleeper” on his YouTube channel with 183,000 subscribers.
“Isaac TeSlaa, who we’re not quite sure on the pronunciation with yet,” Pate said. “There’s two As on the end, so it could be…any number of different pronunciations. We’ll get that squared away.”
Between those inside the 76,000-seat Reynolds Razorback Stadium and watching on television, there will be a much larger audience come Saturdays this fall.
That is quite the change for a guy whose only full-ride scholarship offer coming out of high school was from Hillsdale College in Michigan, where he played in front of fewer than 20,000 total fans over the course of an 11-game season last year.
The Origins of Isaac TeSlaa
As the son of a coach, Isaac TeSlaa essentially grew up on a football field.
From the age of 3 or 4, he was a fixture at football practices for Unity Christian High School, where his father, Mark TeSlaa, became an assistant when the school started its football team about 20 years ago.
It was in third grade that TeSlaa started playing organized football. With no youth program where his dad worked, his parents signed him up for the public school league in Hudsonville, Mich., before getting him into Unity’s program a year later.
Despite some success on the gridiron, it wasn’t until TeSlaa – who has two older sisters and one younger sister – got to high school that his father realized he might have a future in the sport.
“He’s got three sisters, so I don’t know if that plays a role of not doing too much rough and tumble at the house and the only time he got to play was when I got home,” Mark TeSlaa said. “You could recognize he was athletic and fairly tall for his age, but it wasn’t until probably his sophomore year of high school that you started to see a little bit of that aggressive nature coming out and that’s what you need to play football.”
After 10 years on the varsity staff, Mark TeSlaa eventually transitioned into Unity’s youth football director – a position he still holds today – but head coach Craig Tibbe remains in the same role.
He has known Isaac TeSlaa since those early days of him running around at practice and had a front row seat to his evolution into the 6-foot-4 athlete he is today.
“He was a great athlete — crazy athlete, actually,” Tibbe said. “He would do things and you’d sit there and say, ‘What in the world did he just do?’”
“In practice, he would just run away from people or he would catch a ball with one hand intentionally just because it’s practice. In basketball, there would be times he would go up for a rebound and you’re like, ‘Wow.’ He just blew everyone out of the water and he did it without even thinking. It was just kind of like a reactionary thing that athletes do that you can’t coach.”
During TeSlaa’s senior year, he went out for track and promptly broke the school’s long jump record with a distance of 22 feet, 3.75 inches. He might have competed for a state title in the event had it not been for a lingering hamstring injury.
That led to the track coaches going to Tibbe and asking why they didn’t get him sooner, but TeSlaa played baseball before that. On the diamond, he roamed center field, where he could cover a lot of ground and track down fly balls – not to mention his strong arm.
He also guided the Crusaders to a state championship in basketball, but it was the gridiron where he really shined. He contributed in all three phases, starting at quarterback and safety while also returning kickoffs. An injury eventually thrust him into punt return duties, too.
Of course, Unity Christian ran an old-school Wing T offense, so it wasn’t like he was slinging the ball all over the field. Instead, putting him under center was just a way to get the ball in TeSlaa’s hands.
“He threw decent, but he was such a good, strong runner, so he was quite a weapon there,” Tibbe said. “In fact, we won a state championship his junior year largely in part due to his efforts there at QB and the way he carried us at times as a running back.”
It wasn’t always in the “rah-rah” way, but TeSlaa was also a leader for the Crusaders. Tibbe described him as someone who was quiet in some aspects, but really led by example.
His personality also created a fun environment that helped everyone relax and compete at their best.
“He was a competitor, so he always wanted to compete really well no matter what we were doing — fitness, working out in the weight room, whatever it was,” Tibbe said. “Outside of that, he loved to have fun. He was always joking around with kids. Sometimes he’d drive me nuts because I’d want him to take things a little more serious, but he was just having fun doing what he loved to do.”
Getting an Opportunity at Hillsdale College
Playing quarterback was easily the best thing for winning games at Unity Christian, but it didn’t help Isaac TeSlaa much when it came to his recruitment.
Perhaps he could have stuck at the position in an option offense, but it was pretty much a given that he wasn’t going to play quarterback in college. Instead, with his desire to stay on offense, most knew his future was likely at wide receiver.
However, the offers never came.
“Athletically, I think he checked all the boxes that anybody would ever want,” Craig Tibbe said. “The problem was, if you’re a college coach, your time is so limited and you’re looking for kids who can show you, ‘This is what I’ve done.’ You can go back and look, he had some runs and some plays on defense and stuff like that, but he never really got to demonstrate his receiving abilities as much.”
Mark TeSlaa described his son’s recruiting process as “difficult,” as they just couldn’t seem to get any Division I schools interested.
“We went to a ton of camps,” Mark TeSlaa said. “He would do the broad jump and the vertical jump and do a 40 time and everybody would be like, ‘Who is this kid?’ But then when he’d do wide receiver routes, he had zero practice, so all of a sudden it’d be like, ‘Eh.’ I could see why a coach wouldn’t be all in on Isaac at that point.”
Valparaiso, an FCS program in Indiana known more for basketball, extended an offer, but it doesn’t offer athletic scholarships for football. Hillsdale College, a Division II program just a couple hours away from his hometown, was the only school to be all in from the jump with a full-time scholarship.
It could have been a discouraging process, but TeSlaa took it in stride. He and his father knew they did everything they could to get noticed and understood why the DI offers never came.
“I wasn’t overlooked,” TeSlaa told reporters during spring ball. “I don’t blame coaches for not recruiting me out of high school. I mean, I was a quarterback and I didn’t have any film at receiver. … I don’t blame them for not seeing the receiver potential in me.”
Besides, TeSlaa was intrigued with the idea of playing for his father’s alma mater, as Mark TeSlaa also played wide receiver at Hillsdale back in the day — albeit while standing just 5-foot-10.
Luckily for him, Isaac inherited his father’s athleticism and quickness, with a 4.54-second 40-yard dash time and 41-inch vertical, plus got an extra six inches in the height department.
It also helps that he has what Tibbe described as “unbelievable hands” – something his father recognized pretty early on.
“I would always play catch with him in the backyard and he would never use his body in order to catch it,” Mark TeSlaa said. “He catches everything with his hands. As I kept throwing the ball harder and harder, it didn’t really matter. He never double catches. He has a great sense for how to catch a ball at its highest point to gather it in. So that part didn’t surprise me at all, that he was able to catch balls in traffic.”
TeSlaa Bursts onto the Scene
Mark TeSlaa’s biggest concern when it came to his son playing receiver was the technical side of things, such as route running, footwork and getting open.
During the pandemic, which was the summer before he went off to Hillsdale College, Isaac TeSlaa and his father teamed up with another father-son duo in the area whose son was going to be a quarterback at Indiana Wesleyan, and they worked on those areas.
Each summer, TeSlaa would return home and train with his father. Throw in the coaching he got at Hillsdale and Mark TeSlaa said he knew it was just a matter of time before his son put it all together, but even he admitted to having no idea he’d be as explosive as he was.
As a freshman, when the pandemic forced Hillsdale to play a shortened spring season, TeSlaa was initially a backup who contributed on special teams. Injuries gave him an opportunity on offense and he caught five passes for 93 yards in three games.
When the fall rolled around, he worked his way into the starting lineup and caught 45 passes for 698 yards and seven touchdowns despite missing a couple of games with an injury.
That set the stage for a monster season in which he was named the GMAC Offensive Player of the Year. TeSlaa finished the year with 68 receptions, 1,325 yards and 13 touchdowns in 11 games. His 120.5 yards per game ranked fourth in all of Division II, while his 19.5 yards per reception ranked 22nd (and fourth among players with at least 50 catches).
Back at Unity Christian, Tibbe said he’d regularly stream his former players’ college games on one laptop while reviewing his film from the night before. He watched as TeSlaa tore up opposing defenses and said he was most impressed with his improvements as a route runner and someone who could get open against defenders.
“There (were) exciting (plays) where he goes up and catches it one-handed, but the one where he’d come across the middle, catch it on a slant and take it 70 yards, to me, that’s huge,” Tibbe said. “He’s running away from kids. I think that, to me, was something that stood out to me as I watched him progress.”
Everyone who saw him play in 2022 came away thinking the same thing: Isaac TeSlaa could play somewhere bigger than Hillsdale College.
This is Part I of our two-part story on how Isaac TeSlaa went from playing at a small Division II school to not only joining an SEC program, but being projected as a starter for Arkansas football in 2023.
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