Missouri assistant Craig Kuligowski produces NFL-ready defensive linemen
08/23/2014 1:00 PM
08/23/2014 6:46 PM
When one of his players skips class, Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski doesn’t yell.
He makes him come to his office at 6 the next morning and listen to a song.
“He fired up his iTunes and played it on repeat, and I’m just sitting there with my head down,” said Dominique Hamilton, a Tigers defensive tackle from 2007-11 who now plays for the Chiefs.
“But I quit skipping class.”
The song? It’s a profane single from comedian Denis Leary’s 1993 album “No Cure for Cancer.” The title isn’t fit for a family newspaper, but it’s about a guy who’s a world-class selfish jerk.
New York Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson also faced the music during his two seasons at Missouri.
“I’ve had my fair share of those,” Richardson said, laughing. “I’m pretty sure every defensive lineman who’s come through Mizzou has had a cleansing period. Every single one.”
That list includes six first-team all-conference defensive linemen, including reigning Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year Michael Sam, and 10 NFL Draft picks, including three first-rounders since 2009.
Since joining the Tigers in 2001, Kuligowski, 45, has established himself as one of the nation’s best defensive line coaches, but he demands players do things his way — on and off the field.
“If somebody is being a problem, or creating problems for the rest of our team and for me, I don’t want them to feel like it’s OK,” said Kuligowski, better known as “Coach Kul” (pronounced cool) to players, and as @LetsMeetAtTheQB on Twitter.
“It’s not OK, and that’s one way of motivating them.”
It’s not the only way.
Missouri junior defensive end Shane Ray was awestruck the first time he walked into film study.
“My first year here, walking into our defensive line room, there’s NFL jerseys all around that room,” he said. “The tradition there alone, without Coach Kul even having to say anything, is inspiring. You understand the level of expectation he has for each player when they walk into that film room.”
Ray, a Bishop Miege graduate, racked up nine sacks last season as a reserve. Along with senior Markus Golden, they represent the next wave of pass-rushing excellence at Missouri — or “D-line Zou,” as Golden prefers to call it.
“It’s an honor to be part of that group,” Hamilton said. “It’s great to see Mizzou D-linemen doing good every year, dominating and getting somebody in the NFL every year. I take pride in that.”
Six of the top seven single-season Missouri sack records have come on Kuligowski’s watch. He also groomed four of the Tigers’ top five career sack leaders.
Under his tutelage, Missouri led the SEC with 41 sacks last season, the seventh time in nine seasons the Tigers topped 30 sacks.
“Craig’s done a remarkable job,” MU coach Gary Pinkel said. “Just look at the numbers. His guys play well all the time since he’s been here.”
San Francisco 49ers defensive end Aldon Smith is perhaps Kuligowski’s best pass-rushing protégé.
Smith, a Raytown graduate who played two seasons at Missouri, finished in the top five in sacks his first two years in the NFL, including 19 1/2 sacks in 2012. That season, he was a first-team NFL All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection.
“He’s definitely a big reason why I am here today,” Smith said of Kuligowski. “He believed in me a lot, and that helps any player. … I learned a lot from Craig. He taught me to use my talents in ways that could benefit the game. He taught me to work every play, hit every play and go hard every play.”
Richardson, the reigning NFL defensive rookie of the year, said Kuligowski molded him from raw clay into a polished first-round pick.
“I learned how to play with hands more and started learning my technique,” Richardson said. “I am a better pass rusher because of him. Before I got there, I relied on my natural ability, so most of my technique came from Coach Kul.”
Watching NFL games, Kuligowski occasionally catches a flash of his teaching and smiles. The thought punctures his tough-guy persona.
“Sometimes, I see something I taught them and, yeah, I do take some pride in that,” Kuligowski said.
Football wasn’t always part of Kuligowski’s life.
Growing up in Southgate, Mich., Kuligowski’s family physician advised his parents, Richard and Daisy, not to let him play football. It would be bad for his knees, the physician said.
Instead, Kuligowski played tuba in the band.
Football didn’t enter Kuligowski’s life until Jack Kell, father of Southgate Anderson football coach Mike Kell, spotted a 6-foot-5, 300-pound sophomore lugging that tuba around during the Titans’ 1983 season opener at the Pontiac Silverdome.
“Basically, during that season and from then on, he (Mike) tried to talk me into playing,” Kuligowski said. “I wanted to, but I had to get doctor’s approval and convince my parents.”
He did a year later, and nothing has been the same since.
“He was raw, as you can imagine, but because he was smart, because he was enthusiastic and a hard worker, he caught on quickly,” Mike Kell said.
Kuligowski, who was inducted into his high school’s football hall of fame in 2008, was a two-way starter at tackle by the end of his first season.
“It changed his whole life,” said Tom Amstutz, who recruited Kuligowski to Toledo and served with him on Pinkel’s staff there. “It gave him a confidence in himself.
“Here’s a big guy, playing the tuba, kind of feeling goofy. The next thing you know, he’s recruited to play football in college. He also was a very good wrestler … but when he finally got the chance to play football, I think it completed him.”
After high school, Kuligowski — who along with his wife, Mary, has three children, Peyton, 20, Madeline, 17, and Max, 9 — spent 14 years at Toledo.
He was a captain and two-time All-Mid-American Conference offensive tackle as a player.
Toledo is also where Kuligowski’s desire to coach crystallized — partly because he found accounting boring, but also because his passion for football grew exponentially with the Rockets.
“Look at the way God made me,” he said. “I’m kind of built for football and I love to compete. I think it’s brought out a lot of good characteristics in me.
“The struggle of football makes you a better person all the way around. I really like everything football did for me. I wanted to coach. I had a passion for it and got some opportunities, so I’m here now.”
Kuligowski stayed on as a graduate assistant with the Rockets after his playing career ended and was promoted to recruiting coordinator in 1992.
The next year, he became Toledo’s tight ends coach. And he moved up to assistant offensive line coach in 1994.
Two years later, Kuligowski found his true calling when he switched to defensive line coach — a position he has held on Pinkel’s staff ever since.
Each of Missouri’s players gives a different answer when asked for Kuligowski’s secret to the art of pass rushing.
Ray says the first step is critical, timing the snap and beating the offensive lineman before he is out of his stance.
Redshirt freshman Charles Harris, a Lincoln Prep graduate, says the key is staying low.
Senior defensive tackle Matt Hoch credits preparation in film study.
As for Kuligowski, he doesn’t believe there’s a pass-rushing Rosetta Stone. He simply preaches fundamentals and backs it up with repetitions.
“I don’t have any magical answers,” he said. “You’ve just got to put the right players in the right spot and give them the right training. Then, they will go out there and do it.”
Kuligowski’s system changes remarkably little from year to year. He draws primarily on his experience as a player, remembering the styles and techniques that troubled him most.
“He was a big guy, but he’s also very intelligent,” Amstutz said. “He started out in engineering at Toledo, but he also has a little bit of meanness in him — a little Detroit Downriver meanness to him. He was big, mean and smart — that’s a good offensive lineman, and it transfers well over to the defense.”
At the insistence of Amstutz, who was Toledo’s defensive coordinator when Kuligowski switched sides of the ball, he studied and borrowed from former Detroit Lions defensive line coach John Teerlinck, copying his attack-minded style.
“We drill a series of basic moves,” Kuligowski said. “They’re going to do that before practice almost every day from now until the end of the season. When we go into spring ball, we’re going to do it every day before practice starts. After five years, that stuff becomes second nature.”
If there’s a formula for Mizzou’s success, it’s that simple.
“The reason that Michael Sam went from being a five-sack-a-year guy to an 11-sack-a-year guy is he just got better at doing what he’s supposed to do and he got more consistent at it,” Kuligowski said. “That’s it.”
Kuligowski’s defensive linemen have built a reputation for relentlessness, but it’s his relentless day-to-day approach — with those drills and in film study — that produces results.
“I can’t say I’ve been on another team where we pass rush every single day, every single period,” Hamilton said. “His pass-rushing techniques and everything he teaches about it, he will have you pass rushing all day. Every coach I’ve been with has had a good knowledge of pass rushing, but he’s exceptional.”
Kuligowski is demanding, but he’s also patient. Players are expected to adhere to MU’s way, but he works tirelessly to impart that style.
“Ideally, you have one move that you’re great at and one counter off that move that you’re great at, then you’re going to be a successful guy,” Kuligowski said.
If on-field instruction misses the mark, there are the film sessions.
If repeated viewings don’t hammer the message home, Kuligowski has been known to have a player stand up in a meeting and physically demonstrate the principle he’s teaching.
“It’s my job to get these guys better, and I don’t get to give up,” Kuligowski said. “I don’t want them to give up, so I don’t give up. Coaching is getting the players to do what they’re supposed to do when they’re supposed to do it. As easy as that sounds, it’s not very easy, so you have to use all methods available to teach guys. Then, you’ve got to hold them accountable to do what they’re supposed to do.”
It’s part of an unwritten contract when Kuligowski brings a player to Missouri.
“I tell the players that I want them to be the best player they can possibly be when they leave here, so I’m pushing them, prodding them, doing whatever it is,” Kuligowski said. “They’re going to grow up as men. We’re going to develop them as a person first, and then the player will come out of them.”
As demanding as Kuligowski can be, many current and former players, including Hamilton and Hoch, regard him as a second dad — a straight-shooter who’ll help you down the path to manhood, and maybe to the NFL.
“He holds you accountable as a man in all ways,” Richardson said. “He doesn’t look at you as a boy or a child, a kid or an infant. He talks to you like you’re a grown man and he expects you to respond like a grown man.”
Missouri defensive linemen under Kuligowski drafted into NFL
Draft year (Round, Overall)
2014 (2, 60)
DE Kony Ealy
2014 (7, 249)
DE Michael Sam
2013 (1, 13)
DT Sheldon Richardson
New York Jets
2011 (1, 7)
DE Aldon Smith
2009 (1, 32)
DT Evander “Ziggy” Hood
2009 (6, 199)
DE Stryker Sulak
2007 (4, 113)
DE Brian Smith
2005 (3, 89)
DT Atiyyah Ellison
2005 (6, 191)
DT C.J. Mosley
2003 (6, 214)
DT Keith Wright
* Two undrafted defensive lineman groomed by Kuligowski — defensive tackle Dominique Hamilton and defensive end Jacquies Smith — also made the NFL. Hamilton spent two seasons with Washington and now is with the Chiefs, while Smith appeared in 16 games with the Jets in 2012 and went to camp with Buffalo last summer.
Missouri single-season sack leaders
1. (tie) Aldon Smith
1. (tie) Michael Sam
3. Justin Smith*
4. Stryker Sulak
5. Antwaun Bynum
6. Kony Ealy
7. Brian Smith
* Only player not coached by Kuligowski
Missouri career sack leaders
1. Brian Smith
2. (tie) Stryker Sulak
2. (tie) Justin Smith*
4. Michael Sam
5. Lorenzo Williams
* Only player not coached by Kuligowski
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