Brains and brawn

Former Cal Poly defensive end Chris Gocong ranks second all time at Cal Poly with 42 career sacks, ninth all time at Cal Poly with 42 single-season tackles and 10th at Cal Poly with 212 career tackles. Mustang Daily file photo

Football schematics can often be challenging.

When looking at play art, there can be so many signs and short hand that it looks more like hieroglyphics rather than anything comprehendable. With numerous Xs, Os, squares and circles, it seems coaches are often in search of discovering a new form of Pictionary as opposed to a standard play call.

Take all that, add a blitz-crazy playbook and a legendary defensive mind, and the task may seem nearly impossible for any individual to grasp — especially for a player picking up a position he had never played before.

Not for former Cal Poly defensive end Chris Gocong.

“He has a special mind. There are a lot of guys who have a special mind, but don’t necessarily have the athletic ability that Chris has,” former Cal Poly linebacker Kyle Shotwell said. “Then pair his intelligent mind to his incredibly athletic body and you get a specimen. That is what Chris is.”

Gocong can thank his engineering degree and Cal Poly football experience for that.

“In the scheme he played for on the (Philadelphia) Eagles, they are notorious for probably being the most complex defense — schematically — in the NFL,” Shotwell said. “The fact that he was able to go on to the NFL in arguably the most complex defense and learn a completely new position; to be able to do that takes an extremely bright individual. Not many guys can do that — Chris is one of those guys.”

Don’t let his mind deceive you. The Cal Poly football legend wasn’t all smarts. For years, he haunted the dreams of Great West quarterbacks. His intellect and knack for finding the quarterback earned him a Buck Buchanan award in 2005 — recognizing him as the best defensive player in the country. After stepping off the collegiate field for the final time, Gocong ranked second all-time at Cal Poly with 42 career sacks, ninth all-time at Cal Poly with 42 single-season tackles and 10th in Cal Poly history with 212 career tackles.

But he hasn’t always been that dominant.

Learning curves

It seemed as if no matter where he was on the field, Gocong could get to the quarterback. Throughout the majority of his football career, he possessed the ability to torment quarterbacks anywhere on the defensive line and sometimes at linebacker. Yet, come national signing day, no colleges saw the potential in a high school Gocong.

“No one really recruited me for football. I had a few Ivy League schools looking at me, but it wasn’t anything too serious where they offered me a scholarship,” Gocong said.

He started his football career in Carpinteria High School. Despite never playing football before high school, Gocong was a three-year letter-winner at quarterback and linebacker. He made 180 tackles as a junior, 150 as a senior, while scoring 11 touchdowns on defense and threw for four more as a senior. It didn’t stop there; he was also a stand-out in track and field. The two-sport athlete set a school record in the discus and nabbed two all-league honors in the discus and shot put.

But not even those stats landed on Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson’s radar. Entering his first season at Cal Poly, Ellerson was looking for an answer to turning around a team that had recorded three consecutive 3-8 seasons.

At first, Gocong wasn’t a part of the solution.

“Our track coaches were the ones that made us aware of him,” Ellerson said. “They came to us and said, ‘Hey, we need to split this guy because we want him to come throw.’ Ironically, he never did throw at Cal Poly.”

Ellerson glanced at Gocong’s playing tape, but wasn’t completely sold. He said one thing was for certain: the fact that he excelled on both sides of the football field showed him something.

“His actual playing tape from football was not remarkable. It certainly showed he was athletic and it showed that he had that position flexibility and it showed that his coaches in high school obviously had a high regard for his athleticism, but the tape itself didn’t scream that at you,” Ellerson said.

Despite the doubts, Ellerson gave Gocong his chance at the collegiate level of football — as a Mustang.

The three-point stance

Gocong already proved himself at arguably two of the hardest positions on the football field in high school. In high school, he would tear defenses up with his touchdown passes, then light up ball carriers at linebacker.

College, however, presented a new task.

“I thought he had the explosiveness and the potential to find a place, I didn’t know where that place would be,” Ellerson said. “I really didn’t know what position he would end up playing; I just knew he was a versatile guy, he had been a versatile athlete.We would see when we got him.”

His explosiveness warranted him a spot on the defensive line — defensive end more specifically — but on paper, he didn’t make much of a name for himself his first two years. He played his freshman season and recorded just six tackles, and the following season, he was redshirted and didn’t play.

In his redshirt sophomore season, due to injuries, he was asked to move from an outside defensive end to an interior defensive lineman. It didn’t give him a chance to be an explosive and disruptive pass rusher, but it presented a different challenge.

“He wasn’t the stature you would look for, but he was clearly the best guy we could put inside physically,” Ellerson said. “He had the explosiveness to play and the strength to play in there. That gave us a chance to have a successful season.”

Gocong helped his team to a 7-4 season. Even though he was playing a new position, he still saw improvement from his freshman season. He finished with 37 tackles and just one sack. In 2004, Gocong returned to what Ellerson would later call his “natural postition,” defensive end, where he nearly doubled his total tackles (71) and finished with 17.5 sacks.

At this point, Gocong didn’t have his eyes set on playing professionally and even if he was, there were better choices than Cal Poly to help him get to the NFL. A member of Division I-AA, now known as the FCS, Cal Poly was known more for its academics than its athletic programs. But, Gocong also wanted to be an engineer — a factor in his decision to play for Ellerson.

“He was dead serious about his education,” Ellerson said. “He had come to Cal Poly because of the engineering program and he was going to take advantage of that.”

He ended up in engineering at Cal Poly, but, as a kid, he never really knew what his childhood dream was. Not even in college did Gocong have a solid outlook on how he would use his degree.

“I really didn’t think about too much of my (professional) career,” Gocong said. “Even up to my sophomore year in college, I figured I’d be an engineer, I’d play football and do whatever.”

It wasn’t until midway through the offseason that he found out he had a shot at something most often dream about.

— Editor’s note: Pick up Thursday’s edition of the Mustang Daily for part two of this two-part series.

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