It wasn't that long ago that Eric Kush and Rishaw Johnson were California University Vulcans. As two of the five starting linemen for Cal (Pa.), an NCAA Division II program, the duo dominated up front against teams like Clarion and East Stroudsburg. Three years later, they'll be fighting for playing time -- potentially starting time -- for the Kansas City Chiefs.
California (Pa.) head football coach Mike Kellar laughs a lot about the journeys of both players. They're not only players he's proud of, but they're also representative of the paths taken by players who make it big in Division II -- what Kellar calls the defensive switch and the bounce-back kid. They're an unlikely pair, Rishaw and Kush, but now they're teammates and among the few holdovers along the offensive front for the Chiefs in 2014.
Two Cal offensive linemen on the same pro football roster has to be at least a little jarring, a little surprising, right?
"Absolutely. Any time that a kid makes that level, you never can tell. We've had a lot of great football players here, a lot of guys who left here and you think, 'My God, he's a definite NFL guy' and then the guy doesn't even come close. [Laughs] So any time you've got two linemen that were on the same team and they're both on an NFL roster, you can't say you planned it out that way. Knowing the kids as well as we know them, I'm not totally surprised, but I'd be lying to you if I said I expected this for them this quickly."
I'd love to obviously get your take on both guys, but let's start with Rishaw. He's getting mention as a potential starting option--
"When I was here for five years as the offensive coordinator and was part of the recruiting process when we recruited Eric, I knew Eric and coached him for a year when he was redshirted. But then I left to be a head coach at a different institution [Concord (W.Va.)]. While I was gone, they recruited Rishaw. He was a transfer from Ole Miss. When I came back in the spring of 2011, Rishaw was coming in for his first semester with the program. So he and I came together at the same time.
"I've known Eric as a freshman and came back and he was going into his junior year. So they were both here at the same time. They both played together for a year, but they really took two separate paths.
"Eric was a high school kid who came from a small school in Western PA, and he probably had the story that a lot of NFL linemen do. He came to college as a d-end, possible tight end, really athletic tackle, but not a great athlete at tight end. One of those kids who moved to center and he developed over the process of five years and left as a great player with a chance to play in the NFL.
"Rishaw is the other type of lineman that we have success here here at Cal. He's the kind of kid who went to a Division 1 school. Things didn't work out there for his entire career for whatever reason. He bounces back, comes to Cal and is a dominating presence for the season that he played for us.
"To think about having those two on the same team now, you look back and go, 'Oh my, that's unbelievable that we had those guys at those two positions.' But it's really a microcosm of our program in a way. If I look at the history of our program, the linemen who have made big impacts are high school kids who were very good athletes who were very good defensive players, possible tight ends or they were Division 1 transfer bounce-back.
"The junior college transfers haven't worked out. The smaller high school linemen that you think you can do something with hasn't worked out. It's those two types of kids that work out best. Now Eric and Rishaw were at the top of the food chain for each of their positions, but those are the guys who work out best at Cal."
When you're trying to figure out where to place Eric, is it automatic to place him at center for you? Did you try other positions?
"Eric was really recruited at defensive end. When I was gone, they had some success with him at tackle, feeling a role for him. I think he bounced around to a couple positions. When I came back, I talked to the line coach [Mike Evans] and it was really his idea. He said he's so doggone athletic and fast.
"At our level, when you see a kid that big and athletic, you wanna put him at left tackle. He said he really thought with what we're doing with the zone schemes and having to reach shades and at times you're reaching 3-techniques, to have a really good athlete in the middle would really do something. Looking back on it we should have realized, but Eric had great leadership skills. He was a very intelligent football player. So looking back, the move to put him at center makes all the sense in the world.
"I remember the first spring riding up to practice with Eric. I said, 'Where do you want to play? Do you want to play tackle or center?' He said, 'I don't know. I've always been a tackle, but playing center would be kind of cool. For me and Rishaw to be side-by-side would be kind of nice.' Then for them to be with the Chiefs now. Wow. To me it was so surreal to watch the Chiefs and Chargers and the guard and center are right beside each other. I was like, 'My god, a year or two ago, we're playing Slippery Rock with those guys side-by-side.' It was a surreal moment for me. [Laughs]"
I would imagine so. That's quite a jump and uncanny that they're together on the same line.
"Hell, I think we underachieved when we look back on it. [Laughs]"
Take me back to Rishaw and what you said about Division I bounce-backs. You said they have success, but I'm assuming the opposite happens as well. They're bouncing back which means they've been somewhere or into something that brings baggage with it. How do you handle that and what was that like with Rishaw?
"At our level, we've had a lot of guys like that. My experience is that two kinds of kids come back. There's the kid with baggage and he never changes his ways and he doesn't change at your place either. Or there's the kid who says, 'I should be at Ole Miss or Pitt or whatever school and this is the second chance to right a wrong.' Those are the kids who make it. The kid who comes and says they screwed up and this is a chance to make his life right end up making it.
"Rishaw was a kid who really knew that he was going to get his chance at the NFL if he would come here and do things the right way. And he proved himself. I'm sure that was a big part of his motivation. I think he wanted to win. I think he's a team guy at heart, but I think a big part of his motivation is that he knew if it didn't work out, he'd be selling shorts or bagging groceries somewhere.
"If we get 10 of those kids a year, I'll be honest with you. Five of them will attack it like Rishaw did and five of them won't work out at your place either. You just say, 'Well, I see you brought your problems with you.'
"Now, I'm not going to B.S. you. There was a lot of coaching there with Rishaw. Our line coach had a lot of one-on-one discussions with him and helped keep him on the straight and narrow. Our head coach at the time did the same. At that time I was the offensive coordinator and I had discussions with him. It takes a village to make sure your kids are raised right and that's what happened with him. But at the end of the day, he was the one who did out and did it. He was willing to right the wrongs he'd made in the past. He did the work."
Do you remember some of the ways in which you saw that growth?
"On the field you could see that he was big and explosive. You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out with him. The bigger thing was getting him to buy into the way you do things. Our line coach had a lot of discussions that Rishaw had this technique from Ole Miss and it made sense, but now we have to get him to buy into what we do.
"I remember he'd always huddled his whole life. We were a no huddle team. [Laughs] I remember him saying, 'Why can't we line up and huddle?' So we had to say, 'We don't do that here.' He had to amend his thought processes along the way for the betterment of the team. I think if it was up to Rishaw, we'd huddle up and have been a two-back system and we'd ran power and iso every play. But he knew that we were going to be a one-back, multiple personnel, fast break type of offense and he had to adapt to that.
"It showed that he did have character, that he was a good kid, and that he was a team-first guy in order to do that. He wasn't doing what was best for his career necessarily, but he was doing what's best for the team. Although we try to convince him on our end that what's best for the team is also what's best for his career in the long run."
What was the pre-draft attention you got on those guys?
"I remember our spring game on the day they were going into the draft. Everyone was abuzz. We heard that Rishaw was going here or going there. Now it didn't happen. But when Eric got drafted by the Chiefs, the whole place was abuzz. All of the coaches were all texting and Tweeting and Facebooking.
I called him immediately and he answered the phone and he sounded like a guy who just hit the lottery on the other end. It's very surreal from a coaching standpoint that these guys are where they're at doing the things they're doing. It's almost hard to believe."
How much contact do you still have with either player?
"With Eric, quite a bit. With Rishaw, we text every few months. I was in Atlanta with an alum probably a year ago at a workout place and I had no idea he was going to be there. I walked in and I get immediately bear-hugged by this 6'5, 300 lb. man from behind. I was like, 'What's going on?' and it was Rishaw. It was great to see him.
"Eric is from Western PA so when he's back, he always stops up. He came up earlier this year and had lunch with us. We were doing some recruiting stuff and he's been phenomenal to the program. Both of them consider Cal their home and I know I could call either one for anything. They know we'd be there for them and vice versa.
"You know when it comes down to it, these are two really good kids. They took two totally different paths to get here, but they both came here, became friends and they were team guys. They're what this program is all about."
And now they're teammates for the Kansas City Chiefs.
"Hey, if Andy Reid wants to give 'em back to us, we'll take 'em. We can't pay them what he's paying them, but we sure could use them. [Laughs]"