2020 NFL Draft: Rhode Island teammates, cousins ready to make names for themselves

The 2020 NFL Draft is loaded with wide receiver prospects. The familiar institutions — Alabama, LSU, Clemson and other traditional powers — have produced their fair share but several teams were flocking to the northeast to learn more about two intriguing options.

“It was really crazy during the season,” Rhode Island wide receivers coach Donovan Varner told CBS Sports. “We had a couple of teams in here every single day. It was non-stop. After the season, it slowed down a bit. I was still getting a bunch of calls but it definitely slowed down. Once Isaiah declared for the NFL, my phone has not stopped ringing since January. It has been great.”

Awaiting those visitors were a pair of wide receivers originally from Maryland — Isaiah Coulter and Aaron Parker. As a senior, Parker recorded 81 receptions for 1,224 yards and nine touchdowns. It was a remarkable development for the former high school quarterback that initially committed to play outside linebacker at Eastern Michigan.

Ari Confesor, the former Rhode Island wide receivers coach currently at Air Force, recalls walking into Gwynn Park High School in Brandywine, Maryland with the intention of recruiting cornerback Rashod Dickerson. Head coach Danny Hayes advised him to check out this other player, Parker, so Confesor watched some film. After a few clips, he stopped the coach.

“Why are you showing me this guy? He’s going D1,” Confesor said, before learning of the aforementioned commitment to Eastern Michigan. 

Hayes noted that Dickerson and Parker wanted to play together at the next level. Confesor stayed in touch, Parker’s recruiter at Eastern Michigan left and the door swung open for the two to unite. It was not long before the coach was taking in one of Parker’s basketball games. 

“Out of high school, I saw him play basketball one day. He wasn’t a shooter or a scorer but he played defense, he blocked shots and he would be the first one down on fast breaks getting easy layups. You just saw his athleticism. You saw his change of direction and him running down and competing his butt off.”

Parker, along with Dickerson, signed to play outside linebacker in South Kingstown. His future would be shaped forever before he ever played a down for the Rams.

“The summer before his freshman year, we had a receiver that didn’t get admitted into school so we were short a receiver. My phone all summer was ringing. [Quarterbacks coach] Will [Fleming] was calling me. He was saying ‘hey man, I was watching Aaron and the quarterbacks were telling me that a couple receivers were hurt and everyone was running routes for them. And he is better than every receiver that we have,'” Confesor remembered Fleming saying.

The coach initially brushed the idea away but he could not outrun it. 

“The head guy was like ‘well, why don’t you see what he can do and let me know your thoughts on him.’ We went out, caught a couple of passes and all that. I said, ‘coach, he had the best hands of anyone on our team. I can work with this kid and he could be a really good player.'”

Parker was the jewel of the recruiting class. The defensive coaching staff did not want to lose him but it all happened so quickly.

“I’m sure they were a little bitter,” Confesor chuckled. 

The player was forced to adapt. 

“Going in, I had the mindset that I was going to be playing defense. I was just trying to get out there on the field. One practice, we didn’t have enough people and the head coach saw me out there running routes. It was hard adjusting to it at first just because I had never played that position before in my life. I had two great wide receiver coaches in Ari Confesor and Donovan Varner.”

As a freshman, he recorded 23 receptions for 441 yards and four touchdowns. There was work to be accomplished off the field, however, as he introduced his coaches to his cousin — Coulter. 

“They are blood cousins but they are basically brothers. They have a really tight relationship. They grew up their whole lives competing against each other and they definitely bring the best out in each other. It is basically Batman and Robin,” Varner said.

It is a story that often plays out in recruiting: player signs with a school, player tells coaching staff that they should check out a relative that is not talented enough to play at that particular level. This is not one of those stories. 

“Tell him to come to camp this summer,” Confesor would tell Parker. So Coulter did.

It did not take long for the coaching staff to determine that he belonged. 

“In high school, he ran on grass and I timed him at a 4.52 [second 40-yard dash] or something. I was like ‘holy [expletive].’ He is so naturally talented. He only played high school receiver for one year. He was at a school that ran a triple option offense so he played tight end for three years,” Confesor said.

Leading up to his final high school season, Coulter transferred to Parker’s former high school and played wide receiver. Confesor started to sweat a bit that this relatively unknown prospect might become more popular in recruiting circles. After taking official visits to Ohio University and the University of Maine, Parker put his foot down: ‘you’re not going to Maine, you’re coming here.’ 

Growing up as an only child, Coulter often found himself playing basketball in Parker’s neighborhood. They also spent some time in the summer visiting their grandmother and uncle, Walt Easley, in Charleston, West Virginia. Easley had played fullback with the San Francisco 49ers for two seasons in the early 1980s. In one of those seasons, he won Super Bowl XVI with Joe Montana against CBS Sports writer John Breech’s father Jim’s Cincinnati Bengals. Easley passed away but his legacy will live on through Parker and Coulter.

“He had a big influence and also my dad did,” Parker explained. “He always pushed me and Isaiah. He takes us out, goes to the rec center and leaves us there all day playing 1-on-1 until your tongues fall off. He just kept us active, kept us out of trouble, kept us off the streets. He told me to keep my head up, stay strong and always compete. That is what I always hang my hat on is just keeping that drive to get better always because I know that he is right there with me every step of the way saying ‘keep going, keep going’ right in my ear. His spirit is still there with me.”

The former NFL player was also able to pass along his love of the game.

“He was always talking to us when we were younger, just giving us those pointers and the fundamental things of it, not trying to go out there and do much. He would throw us the ball and tell us about the game overall and the love that he had for it. He kind of made us have love for it as well just from him always talking about it and telling us little stories,” Coulter said.

Coulter fondly remembered a lesson that Easley taught him.  

“He would always give me money but before he gave it to me, he would make me count it. It was a little trick that he gave me to count my money. He gave me $10 and some change and I think I said it was like $20. He took it back and was like ‘see, you don’t know your money so you can’t get it.’ That used to drive me crazy,” he laughed.

“Next time he did, I made sure I knew my dollars. He always challenged us.”

The wide receiver does not make mistakes with his money anymore.

“You definitely value it. If you can count money and know how to manage it, I feel like you’ll be alright.”

The Rams had a tough 2019 season to the tune of 2-10 but Parker and Coulter excelled individually. The latter contributed 72 receptions for 1,039 yards and eight touchdowns. 

Each fed off the success of the other.

“If I see him get a big catch, it’s like ‘let’s get it going, I have to get one too.’ We are competing but we are feeding off of each other at the same time. It’s your family too so it’s just a great experience. I can’t even explain it,” Coulter said.

Both were invited to the NFL combine in February. Coulter burst onto the scene after running a 4.45 second 40-yard dash, which was tenth best among all participating wide receivers. He acknowledged that he felt as though he could have done better but knows that he also could have done worse.

Varner believes that he might just be scratching the surface.

“He can become more polished just in the technique and fundamentals. There is just so much more.”

Coulter looks up to Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green.

“That’s a guy that I look at. We have similar body types. I like the way that he plays the game and certain things that he does: running routes, attacking the ball.”

He is not concerned with where he might land though.

“I just want to go to a team, compete for a spot and help win games. I want to do anything that I can. I don’t really do the set numbers and things like that. I let my play do the talking for itself through my hard work.”

Parker, who is considered a more extrovert trash talker on the field, has a more compact frame.

“He played with a defensive mentality and that is how he played the offensive position. He goes over the middle, he blocks, he catches. That’s when I started telling all of my receivers to play with a defensive mentality because that is how Aaron played…He is a special receiver. He does a lot of things at receiver that a lot of people don’t do in terms of attacking the football. As an outside linebacker, there are a lot of guys that can run, a lot of guys that can tackle,” Confesor said.

He was scheduled to have a Top-30 visit with the New England Patriots but has since had to settle for a digital interview under extraordinary circumstances.

“I want them to know that I am a guy that is going to be ready to come in and work: big-time playmaker. I am always looking to win and put my best foot forward. They are going to see a competitive dude that is coming out there looking to take someone’s job. I am very comfortable playing special teams. Everything that I do, I’m going to compete at it whether I was playing long snapper, linebacker, kicker, punter; I’m going to compete with the best of them.”

Would he be in the same position if he had not made the position change from outside linebacker?

“Yeah, I think I would,” he said confidently.

Although Coulter is not one to talk about numbers, he feels as though a bet or two might surface once the cousins learn of where they are playing at the next level.

“I feel like then that compensation will happen,” Coulter said. And if he wins, he will be counting his money, just as his uncle had taught him.

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