John Rushing is the Arizona Wildcats’ new safeties coach.
Rushing has been coaching secondaries for over 20 years. He most recently coached under Gary Andersen and Cory Hall in Oregon State’s tumultuous 2017 campaign.
Rushing is a Northern California native who attended Washington State. Throughout the 90s and early 2000s, he slowly climbed the coaching ladder, from Division III Willamette to Boise State to Montana State, and finally to Utah State.
Rushing coached the Aggies’ defensive backfield for six years, before taking a job with the Packers, where he won a Super Bowl XLV ring. After seven years in Green Bay, he moved back west as a defensive consultant for the LA Rams in 2016, and after a year in Corvallis he’s now a member of the staff in Tucson.
Rushing’s west coast ties and years of experience will surely make him a useful addition to the staff.
He spoke to the media Thursday for the first time since being hired by Kevin Sumlin, and here’s what he had to say.
Arizona safeties coach John Rushing talks about coming to Arizona, playing in the NFL and recruiting.Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Wednesday, April 11, 2018
You go back a long ways with (defensive coordinator) Marcel Yates. Can you tell us about when you first met him and how good of friends you guys are?
We’re really good friends. I coached Marcel Yates back at Boise State. I was a grad assistant there. I want to say it was 1996, 1997. He was there as a player and then he graduated and wanted to get into coaching. He came and lived with me and coached at Montana State. So we go way back — to him as a player and a coach.
When you think about Montana State and what that was like and what it’s like here, how would you assess that journey and compare the two situations?
It’s night and day. It’s cold there and it snows. Here it’s beautiful and sunny. So the environments are totally different. Montana State we were in a little bit different of a situation. The program had been down a little bit and helped build that thing up. Here you’ve got a good foundation already established, so it’s just coming in with Coach Sumlin’s staff and just building on what was here last year.
What do you like about Marcel’s defense?
It makes sense. Ha. He takes a very logical approach to calling a defense. He wants to get after guys and it’s very multiple, so with me, we’ve got a good history together so him being a DB coach, me being a DB coach, he kind of let’s us and Demetrius (Flannigan-Fowles) do what we need to do on the backend. He trusts us because we’ve coached together in the past. I just like the different things he’s doing on defense, being able to get after guys at times but then being able to sit back and let the players pin their ears back and after the quarterback at times.
So you helped him get into coaching way back when, did he help you get this job?
Yeah, there was some connection. There was also connection with Coach Sumlin. Coach Sumlin was a graduate assistant at Washington State when I was a player back in the early 90s. And then he left with Coach Tiller to Purdue. So me and Coach Sumlin had already had a relationship that went back a few years before me and Marcel but it definitely helped him being here and both knowing me. That’s one thing about this staff — there’s some kind of connection throughout.
What kind of conversations have you and Marcel had about where the defense can improve, how you can guys can help it get to the next level?
We know it’s gotta be a joint effort. The d-line guys getting after the quarterback, and the guys in the backend holding their coverage and things like that. I’ve been able to watch this defense from afar being at Oregon State last year, and the one thing I told Marcel — and this was before I even thought about coming to Arizona — is he did a good job at playing these kids early so they were able to grow up on the field.
I played at Washington State back when we had the Palouse Posse and they had Desert Swarm here. Both those teams had great defenses and they grew up on the field. I think Marcel and those guys have done a great job at putting those guys on the field early and letting them learn by experience.
Who’s stood out to you so far in these last few weeks within your position group?
Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles. He is the elite guy back there. He’s a senior coming back. He knows the defense, he’s taken more of the leadership role in the spring and it’s helped me learn the other guys’ personalities and help me get those other guys going in the backend because he has a very good relationship with them. They all look up to them, so he’s been a guy that’s been very impressive as far as growing as a senior and taking charge of the backend
Are you in charge of all three of the safety positions?
Yes, that’s something that we did differently. It makes us a little bit more more multiple when three guys are in the same room and they know what the other person is doing. So we can roll from any spot and it gives us a lot more disguise because you don’t know what guy is playing what position.
The other day Jarrius Wallace and Tristan Cooper were in the first unit that you threw out there, what have you seen from those two?
Coop has been doing a great job as far as growing every scrimmage and Jarrius has a lot of game experience from last year, so those are also two guys were going to count on next year to help us out and stopping teams.
One of those younger guys, Xavier Bell, doesn’t have that game experience. What have you seen from him?
He’s a freshman, but he’s growing on the field. This spring is very important for those young guys. He’s getting better every week. In total, the backend and the safeties, they’ve all done a good job of getting better each scrimmage and learning from their mistakes.
Isaiah Hayes didn’t participate in the scrimmage, is that a precautionary thing?
Yeah, he had an injury last year, so we’re just kinda taking our time with him. He’s taking some reps in 7-on-7 situations. He’s a very smart kid so he’s done a great job getting a mental rep from the sidelines and getting himself ready to get out there and compete in the fall.
Now that you’re almost done with spring ball, what’s stood out to you about your group?
Just how well they work. These kids, they do a good job of getting after it and really giving me what I’m wanting as a coach. And that’s what makes my job easy. I don’t have to push them or pull them as much. They love working and they love getting better.
So Coach Sumlin and most coaches said they didn’t really look at past film, they didn’t dig in it too much, they wanted to make their own impressions from scratch. But you knowing Marcel so well and being in the Pac-12 last year, did you have the same starting point, or did you have more intel on some of these guys?
I had a little more intel. Obviously we’re good friends so when you play on the other teams in the Pac-12, you share information or talk about different players and kind of help each other be successful, so I have watched film on guys. Not from a personnel standpoint, saying who’s good and who’s bad. Just more of a scheme perspective.
Last year, Tristan didn’t play that much. Is it something he’s done in practice that’s made him a first-team guy?
I’m not gonna say he’s first-team. I know Coach Sumlin addressed those personnel issues after Saturday but he’s done a great job of bouncing back as a freshman. He didn’t play a lot last year and maybe he took it upon himself to challenge himself to get back to playing more.
So some guys when there’s a new coaching staff, it’s kind of a fresh start for them. Chacho Ulloa, he’s someone that really didn’t a play a lot here. Is he someone who falls into that category?
Yeah, that’s the first thing I talk about when they step into the room. We’re starting from a clean slate. Everybody has something to prove and I’m not going to judge anybody based on what the last coach did or thought, because I’m not the last coach. I’m the new coach, so I’m going to judge them on how they work for me and what they bring to the table as far as me being their position coach and I think they’re all going to be able to contribute to this team in one fashion or another.
Marcel coached linebackers his first year here and then went back to defensive backs last year, now he’s back at linebackers. Did your presence make him feel more comfortable doing that, knowing that you know his scheme and what he likes in the back end?
I think with me and Coach (Demetrice) Martin, we’ve got a lot of experience coaching guys in the secondary in the Pac-12, I’ve been in the NFL. So I think he trusts us with the whole back end. That allows him to move to the front, and I think from his standpoint, he wanted to get back into that linebacker room and rejuvenize it.
You were in the NFL for several seasons, what was the biggest thing you took from the NFL that you’ve been able to apply since being back in college?
Preparation and paying attention to detail. ... That’s how I try to mold myself now as a coach. Just be really detailed in the small things. Those things make a big difference in the end.
How do you feel like you’ve grown as a coach since the early days?
Tremendously. I’ve had a lot of good guys I’ve worked with along the way. I had the opportunity to win the Super Bowl with Mike McCarthy at the Packers. I worked with Mike Kramer back in the day at Montana State, just so many guys that have done a lot in this profession, so me being a young coach, just being a sponge and trying to continue to grow and take a little bit from each guy?
What did you think about the defense’s performance in the scrimmage Saturday?
I thought we played well. I thought we played as a unit and guys played with more energy and that’s all you can ask for, just fly around and get to the ball and good things will happen and I thought we did that batter.
It seemed like from afar that the defensive guys knew where to go, what to do, and the offense was still a little hesitant because they’re still learning.
Yeah, that’s typical anytime you’re coming to camp, where it’s college or the NFL. The defense should be ahead of the offense. Offense has a lot to do with timing and playing together so I think it takes them a little longer to gel than it does on defense.
What are your areas of recruiting?
Northern California. That’s where I’m from. I’m from the Central Valley so I get a chance to go back home. When I was in college before, I had that area, so it gives a chance to rekindle those relationships with those high school coaches down there.
Are you also recruiting nationally for safeties as well or just strictly NorCal?
Well, just NorCal now. But anytime we have safeties in another coach’s area, we’ll go see him and get involved with recruiting more through relationships here. So you may have an area and you find a guy but we’re all going to jump in and get that guy.
Do you feel like college football has changed a lot since before you went to the NFL
Recruiting has. We didn’t have Twitter and all the stuff they have now. It was more get the tape and evaluate the tape. We didn’t really pay attention to stars or that type of thing. We looked more at tape and I think that’s the same approach that Coach Sumlin is having. Let’s get the guys that we like and not the guys that have all the (publicity). We like those guys too but we’re going to do our due diligence and make sure we check out the film.
But you have to be well-versed on social media these days to recruit, right?
Yeah, that was a big surprise for me. I was off the grid for a couple years, so I didn’t do the social media thing. But now it’s part of recruiting and I’ve picked it up. You’ll see me, I’m more of a retweeter and not a true tweeted, so you won’t get very much original information from me, but I’m learning.
What characteristics are you looking for in a safety when you’re recruiting?
There’s so many. You want guys with ball skills, you want guys that can tackle well, you want speed, you want length, you want those tangibles. But just football players. Sometimes passion jumps off on tape. I want the guy who’s passion you can see on tape. I just saw the measurables but you want to see him play the way you want him to play.