Josh Mauga settled into his crouch, ready to pounce.
This was Oct. 19, the second quarter of the Chiefs’ 23-20 win over the San Diego Chargers, and a Chiefs coach had just told him to be alert for the screen pass, based on the formation. The moment Mauga saw running back Ronnie Brown shuffle into the right flat, Mauga took off like a rocket, split two pulling offensive linemen and wiped out the third-and-long play.
It was one example of the way Mauga, a fifth-year veteran and former undrafted free agent-turned-starter, plays football. Ferocious. Relentless. Like every snap might be his last.
This is no coincidence. It was only a few months ago when Mauga was not sure if he would ever get a chance to play again. Injuries had derailed his 2012 and 2013 seasons with the Jets, and when the free-agent period heated up in March, no team bothered to reach out to Mauga.
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“No question, I’m always going to have a chip on my shoulder,” Mauga said. “I’ve got to work the hardest. I’ve never had things handed to me. I wasn’t drafted. I’ve got to go out there and work for that starting spot.”
Mauga’s competitiveness and surprising athleticism — he was originally a running back before he became a four-year starter at linebacker for the University of Nevada — has made him a favorite of Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, though that doesn’t keep his coach from playfully giving him grief.
Sutton says Mauga was going to be the starting running back in the “pistol” offense invented by then-Nevada coach Chris Ault, now a Chiefs consultant.
“I told him,” Sutton said, “if it was the pistol and you’d been in it, they would have had to name it ‘pop gun’ because it would have never got Chris any fame at all.”
But Sutton knows that had Mauga’s career as a running back panned out, the Chiefs would be without a middle linebacker who, by every measure, has exceeded all reasonable expectations after star linebacker Derrick Johnson’s injury.
Mauga has emerged as a three-down player who leads the team in tackles with 47 while starting all seven games for the 4-3 Chiefs. He’s proven to be a reliable run defender and a sure tackler with a solid understanding of Sutton’s defense.
In fact, Sutton trusts him so much that in the wake of Johnson’s injury, he’s been “green dotted,” or given the one defensive helmet with the radio in it, which allows allows him to communicate with his coaches while on the field.
In a candid moment before a recent practice, Mauga admitted that this season has surpassed his wildest dreams.
“No, that was never in my vision this year,” Mauga said. “But everything that has happened has been great. It has definitely been a blessing and I couldn’t have asked for anything more than this.”
The doubt and the worry didn’t really creep in Mauga’s mind until March.
Up until then, he’d been working out in San Diego, trying to stay in shape and rehab from the various ailments that derailed his career with the Jets.
He’d just had his second major surgery, this time on his back, after a torn pectoral ruined his season the year before. But after the promise he’d shown early in his career with the Jets from 2009-12, he was optimistic some team would still take a chance on him.
“I had zero phone calls,” Mauga said. “It was very quiet. It was kind of tough, but my agent and my family just said, ‘You need to worry about you. Get healthy and once you’re healthy then you can start showing teams that you’re ready to go.’”
So that’s what Mauga did. But as March turned to April, and April turned to May, his phone never rang. He began to wonder if his football career was about to end at 27 years old.
“The mind can play lots of tricks on you, especially when you’re down and you’re not sure what’s going to happen,” Mauga said. “There were definitely a couple of moments there when I would try to do more than I was supposed to be doing.
“I might have had a setback in my recovery, there was definitely that possibility … but I never wanted to give up. I still wanted to give myself a chance to get out there and still play.”
Mauga, who is six credits shy of finishing a degree in business, even talked to a couple of buddies who are personal trainers about the possibility of opening a gym.
“There was always that thing in the back of my mind I might have to change careers,” Mauga said. “I always left that possibility what else am I going to move on to? What’s next for me? But I still focused on just getting healthy and playing football.”
Fortunately for Mauga, he would soon find out that someone had been watching all along.
A few weeks after the NFL Draft, teams began holding organized team activities. It was around that time Mauga’s phone finally rang from an NFL team.
It was Mark DeLeone, a Chiefs quality control assistant who helps coach the linebackers.
“He called me up just wanted to see how I was doing, making sure everything was going well,” Mauga said.
That fact DeLeone, who coached Mauga with the Jets before joining Sutton’s staff in Kansas City, was the first to dial him up meant a lot. Mauga did not forget this a few months later, when on the eve of training camp he decided to join the Chiefs over offers from Cleveland and Tampa Bay.
“It was closer to home, that’s for sure, closer to Nevada,” Mauga said. “And they made it to the playoffs last year, so trying to come back and rebuild that this year, that was definitely high on my list to get back to the playoffs and helping this team any way I can.”
Sutton said there were certainly some intrigue on the team’s part, too. The Chiefs were looking for more depth at inside linebacker, and there was a belief they might have a steal on their hands.
“Well, we’d been following him closely, because I really enjoyed Josh in New York and thought he was a really good football player who was really getting ready to take off when he got hurt again,” Sutton said. “He’d moved to become our starting dime linebacker. I think he’s a really good player that has a lot of versatility.”
Sutton also liked the fact he was familiar was Mauga’s strengths and weaknesses after two spent a few years together in New York, where Jets coach Rex Ryan liked Mauga’s upside, despite the fact they let him walk after the 2013 season.
“First off, he’s got great instincts,” Ryan said. “That’s the thing about Josh. He’s a smart but instinctive guy. As an inside linebacker, that’s the No. 1 thing that you need, instincts. He can run your defense, all those type of things.
“Obviously, Bob Sutton remembers that, as well. The only thing that would hold Josh back was his back. He had a couple back issues, and that’s unfortunate.”
Mauga had finally landed with a team, but his personal comeback tour was far from over. He’d need to win over his teammates and carve out a niche on a team that already had established starters in Derrick Johnson and Joe Mays at his position.
And Sutton did not know for sure if Mauga was healthy enough.
“Well, that’s out of our hands,” Sutton said. “We’ve got some knowledge. But he felt good about it, in his opinion. But obviously he had to get cleared medically to get accepted here.”
It did not take long for Mauga to start earning his stripes in Kansas City. Shortly after camp began, he moved up to second team, surpassing Nico Johnson — a 2013 fourth-round pick — on the depth chart.
And when Mays injured his wrist in camp, it was Mauga who earned the starting assignment for week one against Tennessee, surpassing for Nevada teammate and fellow second-teamer James-Michael Johnson.
“He’s getting a lot of reps and he just kept improving, improving, improving,” Sutton said.
Mauga’s health has also held up. He hasn’t appeared on the injury report this year.
This has obviously allowed Mauga’s teammates and coaches to get a clear glimpse of what the surprisingly soft-spoken Hawaiian is capable of on the field.
“You know Tamba (Hali) and Justin (Houston) are out there, they’re yelling and screaming and getting everybody else a little hyped up,” Mauga said with a laugh. “And Justin, every week, he’s always saying, ‘I’m going to get you talk. I’m going to get you to talk. You’re going to talk. I’ve seen it come out in San Diego. It’s coming! It’s coming!’ He’s been trying every week.”
But James-Michael Johnson, who has known Mauga for years, knows that yapping is just not his buddy’s way.
“When I was a freshman and he was a senior, he wouldn’t really talk to me, either,” Johnson said. “When I started playing better, he started opening up a little bit, but he’s just a quiet guy. That’s how he is. But when he plays football, he talks. In regular stuff like around day-to-day, he might not say a word to you. That’s just how he is.”
On the field, though, Mauga is different.
“He yells, you can hear him on the field,” Johnson said. “If something needs to be communicated, he’ll communicate it.”
Johnson said there are even some situations where Mauga feels compelled to talk trash.
“You probably have to get to Josh to get him to talk nasty — he’ll have to be really upset,” Johnson said. “I’ve seen it in college a couple of times. It’s rare, but when it happens it happens.”
When asked about his middle linebacker’s quiet demeanor, Sutton laughed.
“That’s OK, yeah, that’s fine,” Sutton said. “As long as he does his business here, that’s fine. He keeps them straight, and he’s got really good command out there, gets everybody lined up.”
The way Mauga does his business has caught the eyes of opponents, too.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick offered praise of Mauga before the Chiefs’ 41-14 victory in week four, and this week, and so did Ryan, who noted that Mauga’s 2014 tape has been impressive.
“We sat back and said ‘Wait a second, I thought we were really concerned with his injuries?’” Ryan said with a laugh. “But you know what. He is a great person and a great teammate. There isn’t anybody in this organization that is not happy for Josh. He’s just a tremendous person and obviously, the only (reason) you wouldn’t bring him back is the health. I’m glad he’s healthy now.”
So is Mauga, obviously, who is on pace to finish with 107 tackles. That’s the kind of season that helps a middle linebacker get paid on the free-agent market, which Mauga is scheduled to hit again next March.
If he keeps it up, chances are his experience will be a little bit different this time around. Assuming the Chiefs even allow him to test the market in the first place, his phone will be ringing.
“I’m not worried about the contract situation, that stuff will handle itself at the end,” said Mauga, who indicated a desire to remain in Kansas City. “Absolutely, it reminds me of home. It’s very family oriented here. The fans here are great. They’re very welcoming. I haven’t had one bad thing about this place.”
But Mauga knows there’s still a ton of season left to be played. And he’s focused on the next thing, which happens to be on Sunday against his former team.
“It will be great,” Mauga said. “Rex is a great coach, and at the time, coming out (of college) he was the only coach who wanted to give me a shot. I thank him for getting my career started, and I can’t want to play against those guys.”