June 14, 2023

After Developing into Star Receiver for PU Football, Iosivas Looking to Earn a Spot with Cincinnati Bengals

EARNING HIS STRIPES: Andrei Iosivas, right, eludes a Harvard player during his career with the Princeton University football team. Star wide receiver Iosivas was recently selected in the sixth round of the NFL draft by the Cincinnati Bengals. He is currently working out with the team as he looks to earn a spot on its final roster for the 2023 season. Iosivas finished his stellar Tiger career ranked third all-time in program history in touchdown catches (16), sixth in receiving yards (1,909), and 12th in receptions (125). (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Andrei Iosivas has been battling a couple of stigmas as he tries to start his career in the NFL.

As an accomplished track athlete at Princeton University as well as a football player, he heard often from teams that wondered if he was a football-first athlete. He is. He gave up track this spring to focus on preparing for the NFL draft. And then, like many Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) prospects, he’s heard the doubts about jumping to the NFL from Princeton.

“If you go to North Dakota State, South Dakota State, stuff like that, people still respect you more,” said Iosivas. “They don’t really respect the Ivy League. People literally laugh about it. They say, ‘You played Harvard, Yale, a bunch of yacht dwellers.’ I’m always saying, ‘We have really good football.’ That was the chip on my shoulder more than the track thing.”

The Cincinnati Bengals, though, showed their strong belief in the recent Princeton graduate when they selected him in the sixth round of the NFL draft. The Bengals already have a strong receiving core, and even selected another receiver, Charlie Jones, ahead of Iosivas. The Princeton receiver was getting a little nervous with his family, friends, and girlfriend on hand in New Jersey as they watched the third day of the draft.

“It was a long process, I‘m not going to lie,” said Iosivas. “I thought I was going to go a bit earlier, maybe around the third to fifth round, but I ended up going in the sixth. I was sitting around getting a little bit anxious, but then I got the call. I had a bunch of teams that I thought liked me pass on me and then the Bengals drafted Charlie Jones in the fourth, so I thought they weren’t going to choose another receiver, but they did, which was nice.”

Iosivas missed the Princeton graduation festivities because he was at Cincinnati’s minicamp. He’s been working out with the Bengals veteran corps, and trying to pick up everything as fast as possible surrounded by such NFL star wideouts as Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. Higgins is the most comparable to Iosivas, an imposing receiver at 6’3, 212 pounds.

“I think it’s been really good,” said Iosivas, a native of Honolulu, Hawaii. “The confidence I have and just running routes with Tyler, Tee, and Ja’Marr and having a really good coach behind me, my routes, I’m coming off the ball a lot better, my pad level is a lot lower. I’ve been more consistent in my stride length, you can’t really see a change in it when I’m breaking. Of course, everything still needs to get better, but it’s like a boot camp so they really try to push us and get us better in a short amount of time.”

It is comparable in many ways to what Iosivas experienced at Princeton. When he came out of Punahou School in Hawaii, he didn’t have as much experience as some Tiger recruits. He spent his first year on the junior varsity.

“The transition from Hawaii to New Jersey was a little tough at first, just being so far from home and getting adjusted to the school, culture, weather, and football,” said Iosivas. “I thought it was really good to just throw me in the fire, honestly. People get scared to be thrown in the fire, but that’s what Princeton is for. You go to this place that is so different and expects so much from you on the football field and academically, and you come out of that fire sharper. And that’s kind of what you do that first year. You get acclimated and accustomed to the way things are done.”

His first year was spent learning the Princeton system. He had veteran wide receivers to help and the Tigers staff saw an athlete that they could help groom into a better player. Iosivas started to understand the nuances of the game more in his first college season.

“I never really had to read coverages that much in high school,” said Iosivas. “I never had to read coverages much in high school — and just understanding a more complex playbook. Everything was given very fast and it came at light speed. It slowed down once I’d been there a year.”

Iosivas came with an attitude to the Tigers that he had to prove himself. It’s a lot like he has now, so having been through it before is reminiscent of how his college career began.

“I wasn’t a big-name recruit, even with our (Princeton) recruiting class,” said Iosivas. “I was like, ‘keep my head down and let my game speak for itself.’ And that’s what I’ve always done. I did feel like I was overlooked in terms of how many offers I got and the attention. But it definitely made me want to go out and keep my head down and just grind.”

When the Ivy League canceled the 2020 fall season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Iosivas stayed in Hawaii and worked out on his own. He made an important decision that has helped him earn a chance in the NFL.

“During COVID, I had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and I decided I wanted to try everything I could to go to the NFL,” said Iosivas.

“I worked out really hard. I worked out every day. I benched, I squatted, I ran routes, I caught balls. When I came back in the summer, I ran routes with the defense and I was cooking them bad. Once I started really being competitive with the defense once I came back from COVID, I kind of figured that I was at another level.”

By the time that Iosivas finished his Tiger career, he was third all-time in program history in touchdown catches (16), sixth in receiving yards (1,909), and 12th in receptions (125). He led the Ivy League as a senior with 66 catches, 943 yards, and seven TDs. It showed how hard he had worked to get to that point.

“As he self-reflected during the questions he got during the draft process, he was a late bloomer,” said Princeton football head coach Bob Surace. “He wasn’t really considered as a college player. It was kind of fortune. His dad and a former player here, Mike Lerch, who played with me and was coached by and was close to Steve Verbit. Mike had reached out to us to take a look at Andrei. His junior year in high school, in track and football, it wasn’t like he was a standout.”

Iosivas was a standout in track from the outset at Princeton. He scored in the decathlon at the Ivy League Heptagonals as a freshman. He went on to set the Ivy League record in the heptathlon and the NCAA Indoor Championships record in the 60-meter dash in heptathlon and was three-time Ivy League champion in the heptathlon. He gave that up this spring for football.

“I had a lot of good friends on track,” said Iosivas. “And coach [Fred] Samara and coach [Robert] Abdullah, they’re great guys and I really liked being around coach Samara every day. He was with me every step of the way in my college career. Competing in track is just different. When you run, and you just dust someone severely it’s a really great feeling. Or high jumping or pole vaulting, it’s such a unique feeling that you can’t really get anywhere else. Football is obviously unique, but I feel like track and field is just a little more niche and when you can connect coming in like that, it’s definitely different.”

Iosivas was grateful for his experiences at Princeton. He called his first year of football “transformative and helpful.” He is hoping he can improve in the same way in the NFL. He’s already excited about being selected by an organization like Cincinnati, which advanced to the AFC championship game last season and played in Super Bowl LVI the prior year.

“You want to go to a place that wins and knows how to win,” said Iosivas. “But just the way their culture was, when I took my visit and being there now, it’s an organization I feel like everyone loves once they’re in it. It’s family oriented. Everyone is nice. Everyone lifts each other up. It’s a really great environment to be in.”

The Bengals have made it clear to Iosivas that he will likely have to be more than a receiver to make the team. Rookies and non-starters especially need to prove that they can help in other areas, and that means playing special teams, something that Iosivas never had to do at Princeton.

“It is definitely different, but I’m here and grateful for them choosing me and even putting the time and effort into developing me so anything I can do for this team, I will do and hopefully do well,” said Iosivas. “They obviously see what traits you have, so usually receivers and corners will play the gunners or the safeties on punts — the guys that guard the gunners and might dabble on being the return man in the preseason, and we’ll see where it goes from there. For now, I’m trying all the speed positions.”

Cincinnati, like all NFL teams, was wowed by Iosivas’s test scores. His Relative Athletic Score of 9.96 out of 10 is in the top 1 percent of all receivers ever tested. His athleticism is a bonus, and Iosivas is trying to prove he’s not just a good athlete.

“I think it you’re a competitor or true athlete, you’re always going to want to put your best foot forward and just work really hard,” said Iosivas. “I think I’ve shown I’m a hard worker in the time that I’ve been with the team, but I think that I’m going to shock a lot of people when it comes to camp and the preseason. I just have to keep my head down and keep grinding and show my athletic ability and football ability.”

Iosivas is in Cincinnati through mid-June. Then players report back for official preseason July 22. The minicamps give him some experience to lean on for when preseason begins.

“We’re just reviewing install and stuff like that, but install has definitely come easier because at Princeton we run a pretty complex offense so once you learn how it works you can learn pretty much anything,” said Iosivas. “I think the install has been going pretty smoothly. I’m just trying to learn all the positions so if someone goes down I can be a plug-in in any spot.”

Iosivas is trying to prove his value to the Bengals each day. He’s also trying to make sure he establishes himself as a reliable option for Cincinnati Pro Bowl quarterback Joe Burrow.

“He’s been really good,” said Iosivas. “He’s been really nice to me. He texted me a little bit after I got drafted just welcoming me to the team. That was a nice gesture from him. He throws a great ball. He’s super smart. You can tell by the way he operates he expects everyone to be at the top of their game. It’s been really good having him around. You want to play good so that he trusts you and he’ll be that guy that pushes for you maybe when cuts come around.”

With a deep group of receivers, it is a challenge just to make the team. But being drafted shows Cincinnati has faith in him that he could help beyond this year. The Bengals may need options because of the financial parity within the NFL.

“How they can pay Chase, Higgins, and Boyd with Burrow is probably going to be a major challenge,” said Surace. “Receiver, although it doesn’t seem like a need, it’s probably one year away from being a need. And so they invested some future assets knowing that Andrei most likely is going to need some time to develop. And if he does develop, it allows a higher priced guy to walk.”

Iosivas is hoping he fits right in the talented Bengals receiving core. It would allow him to live out his NFL dream and do so while continuing to sport a look much like he did while starring at Princeton.

“I was talking to someone a little bit ago and I was saying, ‘When would I ever wear orange again outside of Princeton?’” said Iosivas. “Now, I can still wear my orange stuff, so it’s all good.”