Undeterred: How LB Jordan Kunaszyk Went From Zero-Star Recruit to All-American
by Brandon Hall
Jordan Kunaszyk can't take a hint.
Every time life has dealt the former Cal linebacker a metaphorical gut punch, every time the universe has seemingly conspired against his dream of playing in the NFL, he's gotten back on his feet, dusted himself off, and stubbornly persevered. It's how he went from being a zero-star recruit to a college All-American. Now, as a prospect for the NFL Draft, he once again finds himself doubted and discounted. But if his past is any indication, all he needs is an opportunity.
Growing up in Sacramento, California, Kunaszyk was a youth football stud. On the very first play of his first tackle football game, a 6-year-old Jordan dashed for a 60-yard touchdown. But what he really loved was hitting people. "I've always been a physical player ever since I first put on the pads. Having the opportunity to be able to go out there and let off some steam and just being around a lot of great guys (is what I loved)," Kunaszyk says.
He poured himself into the sport and quickly established himself as one of the premier youth players in his area. Then middle school happened. Kunaszyk was quite young for his grade (he played the majority of his high school senior season at 16 years old), and his peers hit puberty well before he did. Just like that, his superstar status vanished.
"Growing up, I was pretty much the star player—MVP of my team, played both ways, was fast, was scoring touchdowns, was making tackles. In seventh grade, everybody was growing. I was short, I started getting a little chubby, I wasn't as fast as I was. From when I was 6 years old, I always played running back and linebacker. In 8th grade, since I was small, I transitioned to corner. But I wasn't fast, I was pretty slow actually," says Kunaszyk, who enrolled at Roseville High School at 5-foot-4, 130 pounds. "Freshman year of high school I moved back to linebacker, (and) there were a couple games my freshman year where I didn't play at all. I remember going home at night and crying and thinking what happened? I used to be the star player. I was fast. Now, I'm nothing. Something triggered in my mind to say I never want to feel this way again. I never want to be sitting on the bench. I wanted to make sure I did everything I could to allow myself not to be in that position again."
That offseason, the team lifted weights at 6:15 a.m. four times a week. Kunaszyk didn't miss a single session, and the added strength and explosiveness helped him accelerate his departure from the athletically awkward stage. He was team captain and defensive MVP of the JV team his sophomore year. He got addicted to the improvement and added hours of film study to his detailed routine.
During his two seasons on varsity, Kunaszyk totaled a combined 178 tackles, 30 tackles for loss and five sacks, twice earning All-Sierra Foothill League honors. But to Division I college programs, he might as well have been invisible. His 247Sports recruiting profile was depressingly barren—no stars, no ranking, not even a headshot. He resolved he'd have to take the long road to achieve his dream of playing D1 football, and enrolled at American River College, a junior college with a renowned football program located in Sacramento.
"I had some opportunities to go play at D2 or NAIA schools, which were great opportunities, but I truly believed I could play D1 football. I remember Coach (Jon) Osterhout, my head coach at American River College, came to one of my games my senior year, and he said, 'Hey, I've watched a lot of film on you. I think you're a great player, I think you have everything it takes to be a D1 player. I'm actually shocked you don't have any offers. But if you don't want to go play at a D2 school, come to ARC, and you'll be able to sign wherever you want once your time is done there.' From that point on, I was all in," Kunaszyk says.
With visions of making an immediate impact at ARC, he trained intensely all offseason. Then, in his very first JUCO game, Kunaszyk fractured his hand. Just like that, he had to medically redshirt the remainder of the 2014 season. What could've been a crippling blow to other players only fueled Kunaszyk's drive, as he vowed he'd come back better and post a dominant sophomore season.
"My redshirt freshman year of junior college football, it was spring ball, and I wrote down every single goal that I wanted to accomplish. If I would've shown anybody those goals, nobody would've believed me. They probably would've laughed. But I believed in myself and I knew I could accomplish them," Kunaszyk says. "Some of those goals included being an All-American, having the opportunity to sign to the Division I school of my dreams, leading the state in tackles, (and being) league MVP."
Kunaszyk envisioned it into existence, as he totaled 118 tackles, the most of any California junior college player, during a dazzling 2015 season. He also earned Freshman All-American and league Defensive Player of the Year honors for his effort. "I think that's a credit to the vision I had and then the belief I had in myself. And not only that belief, but taking massive action to make sure I'm putting myself in position to achieve those goals every single day," Kunaszyk says.
Several Division I offers rolled in, but by that point, Kunaszyk had made up his mind—he was good enough to compete against the best players college football had to offer. "I don't just want any D1 school, I want Power Five. I want Pac-12," Kunaszyk says of his mindset at the time. As 2016 signing day rolled around, he passed on his existing offers. But a couple months after signing day, Cal came into the fold. Kunaszyk had dreamed of being a Golden Bear since the moment he stepped foot on the Berkely campus, and he jumped at the opportunity.
He made a quick impact for Cal, tallying 51 tackles during a sophomore campaign that was highlighted by an interception of Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert that sealed a double-overtime victory. "The second half of my sophomore season, I made some good plays," Kunaszyk says. "It gave me confidence knowing I could play at a high level. I could play D1 football and not only just be a good player, but I could be something special." When current Cal defensive coordinator Tim Deruyter joined the staff in January 2017, it didn't take him long to realize Kunaszyk was wired different.
During the middle of the offseason, Deruyter had the defense over to his house for a barbecue. As everyone else happily chowed down on pulled pork and burgers, Kunaszyk approached Deruyter with a humble request. He wondered if the coach could throw some plain chicken breast on the grill for him, as the existing spread didn't fit into his meticulous diet. "(Jordan's) extremely disciplined in maximizing everything he can do to play at an elite level," Deruyter told STACK. Injuries kept Kunaszyk off the field for a few games during his junior season, but he still recorded 74 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions in nine games.
With his senior season looming, Kunaszyk didn't want to look back with any regrets. He doubled down on his already obsessive work habits, and the film room became a second home. "I look for any edge I can get on my opponents. I know if I spend a little bit more time watching film, or a little more time in my playbook, to make sure I know exactly what I'm doing, to make sure I know what my opponent is doing, it will allow me to put myself in a better position to be successful on the field," Kunaszyk says. "Not only that, but (film study) is just something I genuinely enjoy. It's therapeutic for me to go in their and have the remote in my hand, to watch your opponent film, to watch other linebackers in the league and try to pick up on any little tendency or technique they have (that) they find themselves being successful with."
In addition to a strict diet, Kunaszyk also kept charts on his hydration and sleep status to ensure maximum recovery. His routine became his life. "There were opportunities that I had to go hang out with some of the boys and go party and maybe skip out on a paper or skip out on some sleep. But for me, I knew what was important to me and I knew where I wanted to go, and I knew I had to make sacrifices and be disciplined in my approach in order to get there," Kunaszyk says. "There were a lot of times where I said no, and I stayed home to get some more sleep, or I took care of my nutrition. I meal-prepped, I ate well. I think that really put myself in the best position to have a successful career at Cal."
Deruyter says Kunaszyk vastly improved his angles to the ballcarrier and added more "thump" to his tackles ahead of his senior season. Cal's staff also preached the importance of winning the turnover battle, and Kunaszyk bought in. "This year, everything changed for me in terms of my intent. My intent is not only to make the tackle, but to take the ball away. If you turn on the film this year, you're going to see No. 59 on Cal running around trying to punch the ball out," Kunaszyk says. "(I wanted) not only to make the tackle, but to do something to change the game." When Cal players voted on team captains for the 2018 season, Kunaszyk was a unanimous choice.
It culminated in a fantastic senior season for Kunaszyk, as he recorded 148 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, four sacks, five forced fumbles, three pass break-ups, three quarterback hurries and an interception while starting every game. His 22 tackles during the UCLA game were the most by a Cal player in 25 years. Kunaszyk earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors and was named a second-team All-American by Sports Illustrated.
Every coach who's come into contact with Kunaszyk speaks glowingly about him as a player and a person. "If my son were to become 75 percent of the student-athlete and person of character that (Kunaszyk) is, I'd know that my wife and I did a fantastic job raising our son," Osterhout told The Daily Californian, while Cal head coach Justin Wilcox told the San Francisco Chronicle that "guys like (Kunaszyk) make all of us think: 'Maybe I should be a little better.'"
Whatever NFL team cracks the door for Kunaszyk, his plan is to run through it full bore. He's never let other people's projections or expectations put a ceiling on him before, and he's not about to start now. "At the end of the day, everybody has an opinion. There's people who are going to try to put limitations on you. I dealt with it my whole life. Saying I wasn't big enough to play D1 football or I wasn't fast enough or all those limitations people put on me. I never let that affect who I was as a person," Kunaszyk says. "Believe in yourself. Don't let anybody tell you (that) you can't do anything, because you can—if you have that belief, if you have that vision."
Photo Credit: Icon Sportswire/Getty Images