Josh Mauga turned in several highlight plays in two years as a starter for the Chiefs. He was the team’s second-leading tackler in 2014. A year later, one of his two interceptions was returned 66 yards at Oakland.
Mauga started both Chiefs playoff games that season, which included the franchise’s first postseason victory in more than two decades.
But a hip injury cost Mauga his 2016 season. Now he’s back, battling for his old spot at inside linebacker with the same approach he learned from Bob Sutton, who was his position coach with the New York Jets in 2010 and is now the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator.
“He told me then, you come train like a starter because you never know when your number could be called up,” Mauga said. “Now, every year is the same. I train like I’m going to be the starter.”
The position is crowded. After Mauga’s injury, Justin March-Lillard took over. He was injured in October and Ramik Wilson stepped in and turned in a solid season with 76 tackles in 11 games.
Both played next to Derrick Johnson, until he was injured in December.
Last week, the Chiefs traded one inside linebacker — D.J. Alexander — for another, acquiring Kevin Pierre-Louis from the Seahawks. Alexander was more valuable on special teams. The Chiefs look at Pierre-Louis as a bigger contributor on defense.
Plus, the Chiefs drafted Ukeme Eligwe in the fifth round from Georgia Southern, and Terrance Smith started the final two games last season.
“A lot of athletic guys, a lot of young guys,” Mauga said. “Our depth at linebacker, we’re running out of chairs in the room, we’ve got so many guys in there. But that’s good. The competition raises everybody’s level.”
Athletic, young guys who played last year, which means Sutton sees training camp as valuable time for Mauga, 30, to return to football shape.
“It’s just getting legs back,” Sutton said. “I’m not talking about conditioning, but the ability to react. He’s played a lot of football and I think he’s done a really good job here. I think he’ll be back where he was at. He’s come in in great shape, and from the health standpoint he’s as good as he’s ever been.”
Mauga became an unrestricted free agent after last season, voiding his contract. He was waiting for a phone call, which came just after the July 4 holiday, from new Chiefs general manager Brett Veach.
Last year, watching the Chiefs build a 12-4 record and AFC West championship without him, was difficult for Mauga, but he’s been through similar circumstances. He missed stretches as a junior and senior at Nevada because of injuries, and a torn pectoral muscle ended his third NFL season, with the Jets, in 2012.
But Mauga maintained his determination, and the Chiefs on Sutton’s recommendation invited him to training camp in 2014. He took advantage of injuries to others to help land his starting role for 30 games over two seasons.
Now, Mauga is looking to regain what was once his. On Monday, the second day of practice in pads, he shared first-team snaps with Wilson and March-Lillard. Johnson’s absence as he continues to recover from a torn Achilles tendon, allows others to take reps.
Despite his experience, Mauga said he needs just as much as time as anybody studying the playbook.
“There are definitely some new wrinkles going on this season,” Mauga said. “I’ve been trying to spend some extra time learning the new things.”
And get back to where he left off two years ago.