It is a homecoming for one and more-or-less for the second.
Oh, and a pair of quarterbacks who galvanized a city take center stage in one of the NFL’s biggest games Sunday.
Former Nevada teammates and current Kansas City Chiefs linebackers Josh Mauga and James-Michael Johnson lead the club into Sunday’s showdown at San Francisco.
Both teams enter the game at 2-2 and are looking up from third place in their respective divisions.
Mauga called Fallon home for years as he began his quest to the NFL, while Johnson hails from Vallejo, Calif., just a short drive north from Levi’s Stadium, the new home of the 49ers in Santa Clara.
“It’s always cool … and a blessing to have my friends and family at the game,” Johnson said from the Chiefs practice facility. “The ticket problem is not a big deal. This is my third time playing in the Bay Area.”
Although both are expected to have sizeable cheering sections on Sunday, the former Wolf Pack stars know this game is big if the Chiefs are to return to the playoffs.
Kansas City sits behind San Diego (3-1) and Denver (2-1) in the AFC West after a bumbling start. The Chiefs were embarrassed in their season-opening loss to Tennessee and followed up with a loss at Denver.
The loss to Tennessee, though, was compounded by a season-ending injury to former All-Pro linebacker Derrick Johnson. Fellow starting inside linebacker, Joe Mays, suffered a wrist injury during the preseason, which required surgery, but is expected to return this season.
Now, the former Nevada duo is playing side by side.
“Josh is a good guy,” Johnson said. “I always looked up to him and it’s cool that I get to play with someone that I played with in college. I learned a lot from watching him play.”
Mauga could not be reached for comment before press time.
Those injuries, however, led Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton to turn to the Wolf Pack alums.
Mauga took over Mays’ role, while James-Michael Johnson is starting in Derrick Johnson’s stead.
Mauga, who has started all four games, and James-Michael Johnson have held their own this season. In Kansas City’s 3-4 scheme, Mauga leads the club with 26 tackles, while Johnson is 10th with 11.
After a sluggish start, Johnson said the defense is beginning to gel and become more relaxed in the scheme.
“It’s coming around,” he added. “We have a great scheme. We are game planning a little bit better. I’m more comfortable … and still studying film and knowing our opponent.”
Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, meanwhile, has been pleased with Mauga’s performance so far this season.
“Yeah, I think Josh has done a really good job and, again as we’ve mentioned, a guy that has been out all last year basically with an injury and I think he’s just starting to get back to where he was when I had him in New York,” Sutton told the Kansas City media. “I think he’s starting to come along very well and done a good job and understands the defense and can get everyone lined up. That’s a real bonus for a guy that walks in and has to take over that role. We’ve been really pleased with what he’s done.”
In turn, Mauga’s production on the field has benefited the injury-riddled unit. Twice this season the former Fallon star has played every defense snap.
A recent trend in the NFL is finding three-down linebackers, but Mauga, who has never started an entire season, is just that for the Chiefs.
“He’s played for us in the past, again, with the Jets,” Sutton said. “He’s played at the mike (middle linebacker), the dime, the will (weakside); he’s played all the positions. He’s a real smart football player and he understands schematically what the whole defense is doing. That allows us to take advantage of that and he’s a pretty good athlete for a big guy.”
Mauga and Johnson, meanwhile, must stop Kaepernick and San Francisco’s physical running attack. The 49ers are coming off a dramatic 26-21 win over Philadelphia last week, a game where the 49ers’ defense did not allow a touchdown.
Johnson, though, has a more intimate knowledge of Kaepernick’s abilities as they played together for two years. Still, Johnson said the defense must keep their responsibilities when Kaepernick drops back.
“It’ll be cool,” Johnson said. “He’s a really good athlete and quarterback. They use him in a really smart way. I’m more focused on stopping the run because they are a run-first team.”
With their attention focused on San Francisco, Mauga and Johnson took similar paths to get to Kansas City.
Mauga was an undrafted free agent in 2009 and spent four years with the New York Jets after being signed to their practice squad. He started one game for New York in 2011, but missed most of 2012 and all of 2013 due to a back injury.
Johnson, a third-year pro, was originally drafted by Cleveland in the fourth round in 2012. He came to Kansas City in 2013 after he was released by the Browns and claimed off waivers by the Chiefs.
Last season he played in all 16 games with 17 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble. This year, though, he has started twice and tallied 11 tackles.