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Sam's growth mirrors that of Lanier football program

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Lanier senior Izzy Sam, who has gained 75 pounds since his sophomore season, has grown into one of Gwinnett County's top linebackers.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Lanier senior Izzy Sam, who has gained 75 pounds since his sophomore season, has grown into one of Gwinnett County's top linebackers.

Billy Wells chuckles when he asks visitors to look at the informal team photo beside his desk and spot Izzy Sam, his hulking middle linebacker.

Taken after one of the program's early practices in 2010, when the school opened, it shows Sam prior to his sophomore season. He hardly stands out among his similar-looking teammates, appearing more like a backup wide receiver than a top defender.

Sam was all of 5-foot-2, 145 pounds heading into the Longhorns' inaugural season.

"It's hard to distinguish him in that picture with what he looks like now," said Wells, the only head football coach in Lanier's short history. "You look at him now and he's definitely changed a lot. He's bought into what we've asked of him in the weight room and he's done everything we've asked of him in the other areas, too. He's changed a lot, even from a leadership perspective. He was a quiet kid who didn't say anything and now he's stepped up to be a leader of our team."

Sam laughs at the small kid in the photo, too. He still marvels at how much he's changed in several areas, but the most tangible is his build. He is now 5-10, 220 pounds.

That's eight inches taller and 75 pounds heavier from when he joined the Longhorns' program as a rising sophomore whose home district changed from North Gwinnett when Lanier opened.

An early meeting with the Lanier coaches and constant strength work with Lanier assistant Korey Mobbs has fueled his physical growth.

"When (the coaches) first told me about it, I didn't think I'd be able to get that far, to 190 (as a junior) to 220 (this season)," Sam said. "Especially with my height, because I wasn't really that tall yet and I didn't know if I was going to grow more. I'm glad I had that meeting, though. It really pushed me to work hard and get bigger, stronger and faster."

Sam has plenty of size and strength these days. His height and weight increases have been matched by his gains in the major lifts --bench press (135 to 330), power clean (150 to 310) and squat (225 to 500).

The rapid change and his results at middle linebacker have made Izzy, short for Isidore, into a college prospect.

"He's a physical middle linebacker, just what you want in a 4-3 defense," Wells said. "He's a punisher, a physical player. He comes to work every day and it's important for our guys to see that."

Sam's leadership is important as the Longhorns navigate a transition season. They played just one varsity opponent in 2010 and a half-varsity, half junior varsity schedule last year, though most of their varsity opponents were fellow young programs.

Sam, who also plays some fullback on offense, has done his part in Lanier's 2-1 start, which included a 23-0 shutout of Franklin County last Friday. He has 29 tackles (24 solos) and two sacks.

"We're not used to playing on the varsity level, so it was a big change this season," Sam said. "But I think we're ready for it. We're used to it by now a few games into the season. We're doing pretty good."

That team growth has been just as impressive as what Sam has done individually. He's the poster child of how far the Longhorns have come, and Wells has the photo to prove it.

Sam wouldn't mind putting another team photo on the coach's wall after this season as the school's first playoff team.

"We're definitely looking for the playoffs this year and then we'll see how far we can go," Sam said. "We feel like we're a lot better as a team this year. We're just working hard to do our jobs and playing together."