Quince Orchard High School graduate John Papuchis never played a down of college football, but this fall he will direct the defensive unit for one of the nation's premier programs.
The 34-year-old Gaithersburg native, part of QO's Class of 1996, was named the University of Nebraska's defensive coordinator in December.
“I'm real excited about it,” said Papuchis, the youngest defensive coordinator in the Big Ten, during a phone interview last week. “I love our players and it's a great opportunity.”
His rise to prominence follows a decade of paying his dues with low-paying jobs while rising through the coaching ranks from an unpaid high school assistant to a high-profile coordinator.
At Quince Orchard, Papuchis was the Cougars' starting quarterback and also played for the baseball team. Following graduation, he went to Catholic University to play baseball, but quickly gave up the sport and transferred to Virginia Tech.
In Blacksburg, he attempted to walk on to the Hokies' football team, but was cut.
While working toward a degree in business management, he received his first coaching job as a volunteer assistant under coach Dave Crist at Blacksburg High School. He also coached the boys junior varsity basketball team.
“I was very fortunate,” Papuchis said. “I owe a lot to Dave Crist.”
In 2001, Papuchis was prepared to start a secure career as an investment broker, but received an unexpected offer from Kansas to become a graduate assistant under then-Jayhawks defensive coordinator Tom Hayes. In Lawrence, he also earned a master's degree in sports administration.
“I was always kind of preparing for a career after college,” said Papuchis, who has a wife, Billie, and three young children. “I didn't know exactly what path I wanted it to be, but coaching football is always something I wanted to do even while playing baseball. I loved them both, but football was my passion.”
Three years later, he found himself unemployed again before accepting an internship at Louisiana State under Nick Saban. Papuchis, who chose the internship over a full-time coaching position at Eastern Illinois, eventually developed a strong relationship with former LSU defensive coordinator and current Nebraska coach Bo Pelini.
When Pelini moved to Lincoln prior to the 2008 season, he took Papuchis with him, naming him the defensive line coach and special teams coordinator. Last year, Papuchis also was the recruiting coordinator.
“John Papuchis is an outstanding coach in every area — on the field, in the meeting room, as a recruiter — and he is more than prepared to take the next step in his coaching career,” Pelini said in a prepared statement when Papuchis was promoted Dec. 22. “He has worked alongside me for seven years … and I have complete confidence in his coaching abilities.”
At Nebraska, Papuchis has experienced a solid measure of success, having coached Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and kickers Alex Henery, the most accurate in NCAA history, and Brett Maher, an All-Big Ten selection.
“[Papuchis] made me mature so quick because he demands perfection and he's a great coach,” said Nebraska redshirt junior defensive end and 2009 Quince Orchard graduate Jason Ankrah, who is expected to start this fall. “We talk about our Quince Orchard connections a lot. … I played with his younger brother [Drew] at QO, but I didn't really have any idea [about Papuchis' coaching success] until he started recruiting me.”
On July 2, Papuchis, who still has family in the Montgomery County area and is good friends with Cougars coach Dave Mencarini, received some more good news. Quince Orchard senior middle linebacker Marcus Newby, one of the top rising seniors in the country, verbally committed to play at Nebraska beginning in 2013.
NCAA rules prohibit coaches from commenting on recruits until they have signed letters of intent. Newby, however, said the close ties to Quince Orchard were a factor.
“It would be nice to go somewhere with connections,” Newby said last month.