SDSU’s CJ McGorisk is a chip off the old coaching block

CJ McGorisk coaching at SDSU. (Credit: SDSU Athletics)

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Brent Zdebski (1), CJ McGorisk (6), Kalon Humphries (70), and Michael Condon (66) were team captains for Walled Lake Western High School in 2011. Zdebski, McGorisk, and Humphries are now coaching. (Credit: CJ McGorisk)

SDSU safety coach C.J. McGorisk is young. Born at the end of December in 1993, Sean Lewis hired him about two weeks before his 30th birthday. Named one of’s rising stars in the industry in 2022, McGorisk’s youth shows in another way. He has a Hudl page.

Founded in 2006, Hudl is one of the primary techniques athletes use to attract interest from college recruiters. Buried among the highlights of McGorisk’s glory days is a play against Saline High School. It is informative of the type of person Lewis selected to lead SDSU’s safeties.

“If I recall correctly, he tore his ACL going into his senior year and had to have it fixed up,” McGorisk’s high school coach, Michael Zdebski, explained to EVT. “He did all the work in the rehab, and I still remember when we ran a Veer play against Saline High School the first game his senior year. He took it all the way for a touchdown, and he had that big knee brace on his leg, too.”

Zdebski, a 2017 inductee to the Michigan High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame, had a different relationship with McGorisk than most of his athletes. Zdebski’s son, Brent, and McGorisk played together for the Walled Lake Braves Youth Football Program.

Watching McGorisk grow up, Zdebski saw at a young age the qualities that allowed McGorisk to rehab from a devastating knee injury to lead Walled Lake Western High School to the state semi-finals in 2011. Zdebski described McGorisk as hard-working, dedicated, and mature beyond his years.

Coming of age under a coaching Hall of Famer, three of the four team captains of the 2011 team have gone into the profession. Brent Zdebski is a defensive quality control coach at Ohio State. Kalon Humphries is an assistant defensive line coach for the Indianapolis Colts. McGorisk is on The Mesa in his first stint as a position coach. Part of the trio’s introduction to coaching came in high school when Zdebski enlisted them as assistants during the youth camps he held in the Detriot, Michigan, area.

“All three of those guys love football and put time in watching film and doing a lot of things that most high school kids don’t,” Zdebski explained. “In that regard, (McGorisk) was extremely different than your average kid. And that says a lot about him. And that’s why he has the opportunity that he has.”

Uncommon path to the coaching profession

McGorisk’s knee injury occurred during the second game of his junior season. Looking to help the team in any way possible, McGorisk became a player-coach. Walled Lake Western’s OC at the time, Mike Weiskopf, remembered how impressed he was with the skill and dedication McGorisk exhibited.

“He knew the offense and he knew what we were looking for,” Weisfopk told EVT. “He was up (in the press box) with the headset helping us out. … We called him ‘coach CJ.’ … He couldn’t be on the field physically, so we turned to his mental acuity to help us with the team.”

This first real taste of coaching did not spark McGorisk’s passion for the profession. That occurred two years later at the University of Michigan.

Weiskopf made a special trip to Ann Arbor to speak with legendary equipment manager Jon Falk on McGorisk’s behalf. As a former student equipment manager under Falk, Weiskopf’s recommendation got McGorisk’s foot in the door.

“I knew he would put the time in,” Weiskopf explained on why he made the recommendation. “Just to be the student manager is really time-consuming. And the role that he took on as a student manager was even more time-consuming. … a lot of people don’t want to commit that kind of time to a position that could be basically a volunteer position.”

Working on then-head coach Brady Hoke’s staff, the young student manager’s ambition for coaching emerged. McGorisk faced an uphill battle to get into his desired profession.

Graduate assistant, coaching’s entry-level opportunity, is usually reserved for former collegiate athletes. Without that to fall back on, McGorisk relied on his work ethic and skill to earn that chance.

CJ McGorisk on the sidelines at a Michigan vs Notre Dame game. (Credit: CJ McGorisk)

He leveraged his equipment manager job during Hoke’s final two seasons into an on-field role at the start of the Jim Harbaugh era at Michigan. Despite not needing to do so academically, McGorisk prolonged his undergraduate work an extra semester.

Without a heavy class load, he could dedicate himself to football. During the 2016 season, he was a defensive student assistant responsible for numerous tasks, including collecting data, doing breakdowns, and signaling the opposition’s personnel groupings during the games.

With the respect and connections he earned at Michigan, he landed a graduate assistant position at Fresno State. After two seasons, McGorisk left SDSU’s sister school for stops at Wake Forest and Indiana before working as a defensive quality control coach last year at Washington.

Along the way, he worked under many great men. Greg Mattison and Joe Hastings guided him with the Wolverines. Jamar Cain poured into him with the Bulldogs. Eric Schmidt and Chuck Morrell helped him with the Huskies. As he had in high school with Zdebski and Weiskopf, McGorisk gleaned skills from every place he coached at.

“Each coach you take little bits and pieces from them and then, you use your own personality on things and mold different ideas and different things you’ve learned altogether,” McGorisk explained on an upcoming episode on The SDSU Podcast.

2024 has been an eventful year for McGorisk. At Washington, he coached against his alma mater in the National Title Game. When Lewis hired Schmidt to lead SDSU’s defense, Schmidt gave McGrorisk his first crack as a position coach.

The promotion from quality control to assistant coach is part of his fast rise in the industry that began with humble roots as an equipment manager. His uncommon path to a position coach is special.

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McGorisk’s Coaching Philosophy

Unsurprisingly, from a 5-foot-8, 173-pound prep QB who led a Veer Offense on one-and-a-half legs to a deep run in the state playoffs, competitiveness is what McGorisk most desires in the athletes he leads. Success at SDSU will always hinge on this quality, no matter what system the Aztecs employ.

Competitiveness in preparation and on the gridiron is what Hoke brought to SDSU in 2009. Hoke’s predecessors, Chuck Long and Tom Craft, recruited terrific athletes, but their innovative offenses failed to produce winning because the Aztecs of those eras did not consistently display McGorisk’s coveted characteristic. With leaders like McGorisk at SDSU, the fighting, gritty culture of the past will live for a 15th year in San Diego.

CJ McGorisk coaches Brady Anderson in a drill. (Don De Mars/EVT)

“A guy who competes,” McGorisk replied when asked what he wants in a safety. “And you can see it on the field. You can see it when guys are hungry, and they’re wired the right way.”

“We’ll use a term on the defense, ‘junkyard dog,’ where they’re going to get after it. They’re going to bite, scratch, claw to do whatever they have to do to put someone on the ground when it comes to tackling. You want to see fundamentals in terms of block destruction, but that’s all stuff we can teach. It’s the wiring. Are they wired right? Can they run someone down and put them on the ground; make a game-changing play when the ball is in the air.”

There are three pillars to McGorisk’s coaching philosophy: competitiveness, being present where your feet are, and joy. He develops these traits in his players by explicitly teaching them and modeling how to live them out.

“‘Loving every moment of it’ is something I’ve been fortunate to work with some guys that I learned from early on,” McGorisk explained. “It really is a blessing to do this, especially when you have a great staff and great individuals in the building.”

McGorisk’s contagious appreciation for the privilege of working as a D1 coach makes everyone inside SDSU’s football program better. His experience in accomplishing his dreams through determination and diligence is more of an asset in coaching than past on-the-field accomplishments.

Chip off the old block

Today, the relationships between McGorisk and his high school mentors have a different dynamic. McGorisk is among the college evaluators Zdebski turns to when he suspects one of his current players might be worthy of playing at the next level. Around recruiting, they spend moments here and there catching up. Perhaps, one day, Zdebski will send one of his current athletes to play under his former star QB.

As he has since 1998, Weiskopf continues coaching at Walled Lake Western around his duties as a math teacher. He has tracked McGorisk’s coaching journey to each destination, proud of his part in its genesis. Like all educators, he views his pupil’s achievements as his own.

Successful coaches like Zdebski, Weiskopf, and McGorisk have a different vision than their less-accomplished peers. They see the game and understand people in a manner that makes them excel.

For all the books and seminars on the topic, good coaching is caught, not taught. The commonalities in Zdebski, Weiskopf, and McGorisk’s responses to interview questions showed their common heritage. CJ McGorisk is a chip off the old coaching block.

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