Thomas Rush knows how his brain works. He's the analytical sort, someone who assesses a situation and applies the data he's acquired to an orderly plan. Definitely a color-inside-the-lines guy.
"That's just kind of who I am and how I've always been,'' the Gophers senior defensive end said.
Yet to tap his full potential, Rush has had to use the right side of his brain, too. In doing so, he followed the advice of Boye Mafe, the former Gophers end who combined intelligence and jaw-dropping athleticism to become a second-round draft pick of the Seattle Seahawks this spring.
"Boye has a really good feel for just being natural and being a player," Rush said. "… What I took from him was being able to be in what we would call 'fit ball' and play football at the same time. You know your role; you know your responsibility. Just go play and be natural and let loose a bit."
The result in 2021 was Rush, a converted linebacker, putting together his best season so far as a Gopher. The 6-3, 250-pounder had 7.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks among his 31 tackles. He teamed with Mafe and fellow defensive end Esezi Otomewo, a fifth-round pick by the Vikings, to combine for 22 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks on a unit that ranked third nationally in total defense (fewest yards allowed).
With Mafe and Otomewo in NFL training camps this summer, Rush is expected to shoulder a larger burden for the Gophers this season. Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi sees the Marysville, Ohio, native continuing his development and becoming even more of an impact player.
"He's continuing to play hard, he's continuing to be physical," Rossi said. "I've seen him start to make some gains rushing the passer. Last year, he did a really good job playing in the run game. He still had five, six sacks, but I've seen him grow there. It's a point of emphasis, and we need to continue to see him grow there."
Rush also has taken on a leadership role, not unlike what Mafe did for him. Third-year sophomore Danny Striggow and redshirt freshman Austin Booker are two young ends he has taken under his wing, and he's using both his analytical strengths and Mafe's let-'er-rip approach to instill knowledge.
"It can be different from guy to guy," Rush said. "You look at a guy like Danny Striggow. He fits into more of my mental style — these are the rules, this step to this step. Of the guys in the group, Booker has the best feel for how Boye had that natural 'go play, go be a football player.' He's got all those numbers, he's athletically freakish to say the least."
From joy to tragedy
Rush's development was steady last season, and he closed with a flourish, collecting a season-high five tackles and breaking up one pass in the Gophers' 23-13 victory over Wisconsin on Nov. 27. As fans stormed the field and the Gophers celebrated with Paul Bunyan's Axe, Rush eventually located his parents, T.R. and Lana Rush, in the joyful mayhem on the field.
Ten days later, the joy turned to sorrow when T.R. died unexpectedly at age 51.
Quarterback Tanner Morgan, whose father, Ted, died in July of 2021 after battling brain cancer, was a resource Rush could lean on in the difficult times.
"Tanner was at my place, helping me out, whatever I needed in that moment," Rush said. "… We've always been good friends before this happened. It's not something I'd wish to be the reason we connect even more on, but we've had our sit-downs and chatted with each other about things and how this affects us."
Rush wanted to make sure he would honor his father through his efforts as a football player.
"He always wanted me to focus in on this. 'This is what you're going to do. Don't let anything get in the way. Don't let distractions get in the way,'" Rush said. "When I'm here working out or conditioning or watching film, I think about my dad and the dedication he had in helping me get to where I'm at. … I think about, 'What am I going to do — the amount of effort, energy, all that stuff – what am I going to put into it to not let what he wanted for me go to waste?'"
Rush is thankful his dad got to experience that Wisconsin victory and the postgame field-storming.
"They made their way down to that wall and they waved me down. It was awesome," he said. "I'm happy to think that was one of the last moments, let alone an amazing moment, to have with him before he passed away."