TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Whether on or off the football field, TJ Rushing has always had big dreams. And he’s never shied away from chasing them.
Rushing, Florida State’s new defensive backs coach, once believed that his path might lead to a court room or capitol building – maybe even the Oval Office in Washington.
“If you would have asked the 18-year-old TJ Rushing, I’d have told you that I was going to go to law school after undergrad,” Rushing said. “I’d have been a politician and then try to be the first black president.”
OK, so that dream is off the table.
But Rushing’s reality has turned out pretty well.
A two-time All-Pac 10 cornerback and return specialist at Stanford (2002-05), Rushing spent five seasons in the NFL, won Super Bowl XLI as a member of the Indianapolis Colts and returned a punt for a touchdown during the 2007 season.
Somewhere along the way, Rushing realized that he’d rather spend his professional life on a sideline rather than a judge’s bench.
More accurately, he found that he didn’t have much of a choice.
“I realized there was no way I could live without football,” Rushing said. “It’s in me, all the way. So that’s what I wanted to do eventually, whenever my playing days were over.”
So he did, taking his first gig as a graduate assistant at Arizona State under coach Todd Graham.
Rushing’s role as a defensive staffer gave him an up-close-and-personal look at the Sun Devils’ offensive coordinator, Mike Norvell.
And, for that matter, it gave Norvell a good glimpse at Rushing’s potential. So much so that, six years later, when Norvell needed a new defensive backs coach at Memphis, he knew who to call.
Rushing’s secondaries at Memphis showed clear improvement in each of his two seasons, modest in the first and then dramatic in the second.
In 2018, Rushing’s first year in charge, the Tigers improved from 122nd nationally in pass defense (282.1 yards per game) to 105th (256.4).
A year later, Rushing’s group took a huge leap – all the way up to No. 20 (195.9) and ahead of Georgia, Florida, Michigan State and LSU, among several others.
“Coach Rushing is one of the brightest minds and teachers in college football,” Norvell said upon Rushing’s hire at FSU last month. “His experience as an All-American in college to his playing career in the National Football League has prepared him well to mentor and develop our student-athletes at the highest level.”
It wasn’t all that long ago that Florida State’s secondary was among the nation’s best.
They were tops in the country during the 2013 championship season and, thanks to the likes of Jalen Ramsey and Derwin James, ranked 21st and 29th in passing yards allowed in 2015 and 2017, respectively.
In each of the last two seasons, though, the Seminoles’ pass defense has finished at or near the bottom of the ACC and toward the bottom of the nation.
So Rushing will at least be familiar with the task at hand.
Like most coaches taking over at a new school, Rushing is offering each of his defensive backs a clean slate as they enter 2020.
“You try not to put thoughts or parameters on guys until you get your hands on them,” Rushing said. “Because just like any fan that’s watching the game, I don’t know exactly what was taught to them. I don’t know they were supposed to do on that play. So you just watch it as an observer.
“And we’ll get our hands on them soon enough.”
With spring practice still several weeks away, Rushing wants his players to focus less on coverages and techniques and more on off-the-field lifestyle choices that will lead to on-field success.
And to, as he puts it, “complete the process every day.”
“To wake up, brush their teeth, make their bed, show up to study hall, go to workouts – every single day,” Rushing said. “Just to do it the right way. That’s the most important thing for them – to learn how to do it.”
And if some don’t yet know how?
“It’s our job to teach them how to do it,” he said. “Show them what the expectation is, what the standard is here, and make sure they reach that every day.”
It might be a dramatic change in demands, but Rushing said that he likes the way the Seminoles have responded to it so far.
“The reception has been great, honestly,” he said, noting that he saw room full of “bright-eyed” players on the edge of their seats during a recent meeting about academics.
When they do hit the practice fields, Rushing wants defensive backs who are “dynamic playmakers,” with “speed, length and explosiveness.”
A look at the roster suggests he might have some options that fit that criteria.
Although the Seminoles will lose starting cornerback Stanford Samuels III, his counterpart, Asante Samuel Jr., will be back, as will starting safeties Hamsah Nasirildeen and Cyrus Fagan.
They’ll also add the versatile Jaiden Lars-Woodbey to the fold after a season-ending injury, and will look forward to the next step from promising freshman Akeem Dent.
Despite FSU’s uneven year in the secondary, that group has the makings of a strong foundation. Particularly given Nasirildeen’s decision to return following 101 tackles and second-team All-ACC honors.
Rushing has made his expectations clear. And he’s made clear exactly what his players can expect from their new coach, too.
“Detailed. Energetic. Passionate,” Rushing said when asked to describe his coaching style.
“I love my players and I coach them hard.”