Eyes on the prize
Pass rushing is a lot different in the pros than in college.
Linemen grow in size, standing as tall as 6-foot-6 and tipping the scales at more than 300 pounds. Wingspans grow, forcing defensive linemen to make shorter, more calculated routes to quarterbacks. Not to mention most get stronger, forcing some pass rushers to fight brute force with speed and agility.
It becomes an arms race to see who can win the battle in the trenches. Linebackers and defensive ends have to adapt — adding new tools other than the rips, spins and jukes which, for some have become nearly obsolete. After all, an excellent pass rusher can nearly incapacitate any offensive momentum. However, it’s not often you find players who have the physical tools to get past walls on the offensive line.
This was Chris Gocong’s specialty, but it wasn’t until near the end of his collegiate career he realized those skills gave him a chance to play on Sundays.
“At the end of my junior year, Jordan Beck got drafted and I realized, ‘Oh wow, maybe I do have a chance to play in the NFL,’” Gocong said. “That whole year, that made me really focus a lot of energy on working out and getting myself right for the next season.”
Heading into his senior season, while also finishing up his academic career, Gocong trained for his final football season harder than ever before.
“He was right in there working just as hard as the next guy. He was always doing what it takes to maximize his God-given skills. He is definitely one of the strongest guys I have ever been around in the weight room,” former Cal Poly linebacker Kyle Shotwell said.
Gocong did not have straight-line speed (he clocked a 4.81 40-yard dash), but what made him dominant was his quickness. He couldn’t out-run a wide receiver, but he had the acceleration to reach 0-to-60 in seconds.
“The guy is pretty much at full speed after two steps,” Shotwell said. “He was extremely gifted with being able to get to full speed in a short amount of time. Most people were probably faster than Chris, but none were more explosive than him.”
In a week five match up against Northern Colorado, that explosive skill was put on display.
All game, crouched in a three-point stance on the defensive line was a 6-foot-3, 265-pound defensive end — Gocong. He constantly aimed for one thing — and one thing only — to pummel Northern Colorado quarterback TJ Swanson into the turf.
On one play, he got his wish.
“It was almost like he knew when the quarterback was going to say, ‘Hike,’” Shotwell said.
Coaches often tell quarterbacks they have about three seconds to release the ball before they’re laying on their backs. On this play, Swanson had far less than that. Gocong blew past the tackle almost immediately off the cadence and collided with the quarterback.
“He timed his jump so perfectly,” Shotwell said.
Weary-eyed and still seated on the ground, Swanson took one glance at Gocong. For him, the play wasn’t over. To add insult to injury, as Gocong made his way toward the sideline, he turned to Swanson, raised his hand and wagged his finger.
“It was almost like he was saying, ‘Don’t even try and pass the ball; you are not going to get much time,’” Shotwell said. “It was right then when I realized, ‘Wow, this guy can really dominate a game.’ He is a game changer.”
Gocong was aiming for a goal that not many players in Cal Poly’s football history have accomplished. He was competing for a starting job on 32 NFL teams, while competing in a subdivision of Division-I that is often hidden in the shadows of storied programs such as USC, Miami and Texas.
“It was tough. Coming out of a (Football Championship Subdivision) school was tough, because even though you may have dominated the competition, it’s always, ‘Oh, you went to (an FCS school).’” Gocong said. “People don’t expect, when you play football at Cal Poly, that you’re going to be in the NFL.”
But his 212 tackles, 58 tackles for loss and 42 sacks at Cal Poly didn’t go unnoticed.
“I was sitting there (on draft day) trying to watch the TV — trying not to think about it — and my name pops up on the screen … My family was going crazy and then kind of settled down,” Gocong said. “You know, I didn’t even see what team picked me.”
On draft day, Gocong was selected in the third round by the Philadelphia Eagles.
“Being drafted, if you really step back and think of it, it’s really, really exciting, and at the same time it’s really, really scary,” Gocong said. “You have no idea where you’re going to go; it’s this huge job interview and basically you have no idea where your future is going to be.”
Although the Eagles did draft Gocong, they did not draft him to be a defensive end. At his stature, he was a good size collegiate defensive lineman, but in the pros, it was a different story.
“(Eagles defensive coordinator) Jim Johnson drafted me, and his whole idea was to convert me to strong-side linebacker. I was excited … I know it’s a complicated defense, but I’m up to it … It’s just such different thinking being linebacker.”
Some scouts doubted he could do it, and in turn, his draft stock plummeted. But the position switch had been done before; Gocong had history on his side.
Former New England Patroits linebacker Teddy Bruschi underwent the same change when he was drafted out of Arizona. As a two-time first-team All-American defensive end for the Wildcats, Bruschi was drafted by the Patroits to play linebacker. After seeing limited playing time early in his career, he later played a key role in New England’s three championships in four years — on his way to becoming one of the most dominant linebackers in NFL history.
“That was, I think, the difference between Chris Gocong being a third-round pick rather than being a first- or second-round pick,” former Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson said. “It was uncertain whether or not someone was going to be able to stand up and move into that second row and pick it up.”
With three years — starting in what is arguably the most complex defense in the NFL — as an outside linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles, it is safe to say he picked up the position well. Gocong, who was just traded this offseason to the Cleveland Browns, has tallied 129 total tackles and four sacks in his four-year stint as a professional.
Even though he has traveled the nation and recorded sacks against quarterbacks like Tom Brady, he hasn’t been blinded by the lights. Gocong has kept his relationship with football professional.
“I really didn’t get it the first couple of years (in Philadelphia) because, you know, I think of it as my job,” Gocong said. “I mean, I play football as my job, and then I go home. I really didn’t realize the first couple of years why people wanted to get autographs from me. We are just like anybody else.”
Even if he has achieved what most only dream about, no matter what jersey he is wearing, he will never forget who Cal Poly raised him to be. At Cal Poly, he was groomed to be a dominant defensive end, but Ellerson taught Gocong to display his dominance the right way.
“We would go to schools, meet with kids — and it was amazing. We are a bunch of 18 to 19 year-old football players and they are looking up to us like we are Donovan McNabb or something like that. It was cool just seeing that and realizing how valuable it is for little kids to see role models like that. I think (playing at Cal Poly) did teach me being a football player — or whatever your area of expertise — people do look up to you and you really can make a difference in their lives,” Gocong said.
With lessons from Cal Poly in his back pocket, on Sept. 12, Gocong will start another season with a week one match up against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Come game day, he will be vying for a chance to prove himself with a new team. But, for Gocong, the game will be simplified. He won’t be distracted by the crowd noise in Raymond James Stadium; he’ll focus on the task at hand.
It’s a familiar feeling.
“It’s just like playing high school football again,” Gocong said.