CALIFORNIA, Pa. | The road into this tiny burg in coal country greets unsuspecting visitors with a sharp turn.
And then another.
Finally, there’s an encounter with the stoplight in town - a Kwik Fill gas station and Red Apple Food Store sturdily perched at the intersection and a Rite Aid situated catty-corner. It’s a slice of Main Street U.S.A., but it’s far from the easiest place to find.
After countless career twists to match the bending roads around his new digs, former Maryland quarterback Josh Portis finally found California. And California, home to a Division II power, is glad he found it.
It’s no College Park. It’s surely no Gainesville, Fla.
But it’s a chance to play - which he has sought throughout a nomadic career.
“I feel like it’s been a journey for me,” Portis said this month after completing practice and finishing lunch on a sweltering day. “Couple high schools, couple colleges. I feel like - I don’t know. It’s weird how life works.”
Especially for Portis. At every stop, doubt never existed about his raw talent. The speed of a tailback. The potent arm. The freakish athleticism, in a large enough quantity to prompt Maryland to tailor a specific package for him last season.
All those possibilities and… what? In the past four years, he has run for 370 yards and produced a 7-for-14 passing line for 85 yards.
Hardly overwhelming stuff for Portis, who landed in southwestern Pennsylvania less than two weeks after the Terrapins’ Humanitarian Bowl victory. He walked at Maryland’s graduation in December, wrapped up his undergraduate degree in American studies in the spring and is poised to finally play extensively.
And, naturally, wow yet another school with his tantalizing, intoxicating brand of athleticism.
“If he has the kind of success we think he can gave here, he’s going to get a chance to play for somebody at the next level - whether it’s in Canada or the NFL - because his skill sets are excellent,” California coach John Luckhardt said.
No looking back
This wouldn’t be the first time a coaching staff salivated over Portis’ possibilities. No less than Urban Meyer recruited him at Utah, then signed him in 2005 upon jumping to Florida.
Less than a year later, he was at Maryland to begin a circuitous three-year stint.
There was a year on the sideline as mandated by the NCAA’s transfer rules, a frustrating experience for someone accustomed to playing. Then came a yearlong suspension announced the afternoon of Maryland’s 2007 opener, punishment for cheating on a pop quiz.
Last fall was supposed to be the time he would finally be unshackled, free to play a bigger role than imitating the likes of Pat White in practice on the scout team. The Terps figured to employ a more potent offense with new coordinator James Franklin rejoining the program.
After a three-way camp battle, Maryland announced Portis would play as a complement to starter Jordan Steffy (and, after the season’s first week, Chris Turner). The reason? It was obvious.
“Good kid, unbelievable amount of potential, natural football player,” Franklin said last week. “In terms of just height, weight, speed, 40, vertical jump, arm strength - you take that kid every single year. He’ll be what everybody gets excited about - the Rivals four-star guy. Every year, he’ll be that.”
But the excitement died quickly. He played in the first seven games, earning his most extensive time in a rout of Eastern Michigan. The Portis Package eventually faded into nothing, and he did not appear in five of the Terps’ final six outings.
In his last snap with the Terps, he lost a fumble in the fourth quarter against North Carolina. In all, he took 46 snaps - which prompted a dismissive “pffft” from Portis when told of his workload the past three years. After the season, he quietly left the program.
“After that sit-out year, I’d transferred my whole life,” he said. “Things obviously didn’t work out for me. I kept being a team player. I didn’t pout or anything like that. I wasn’t a cancer on the team, because that’s not right.”
Coach Ralph Friedgen concurred. He said Portis, despite not playing in the Humanitarian Bowl, was crucial in providing a look for Nevada’s tricky offense heading into that game.
How? By emulating one of the Wolf Pack’s several quick receivers.
“My only regret is that it didn’t work out,” Friedgen said. “I really like the kid. I think some of the frustrations he had here were just that - frustrations. He’s a very good athlete. He has a good work ethic. I just want to see the kid enjoy football and have some success and hopefully achieve his dreams.”
Another fresh start
If he does, it will happen at a school coming off back-to-back trips to the Division II semifinals that sits on a bend of the Monongahela River.
Portis is living off campus, a town over in the creatively named Coal Center (population 126, according to last year’s Census Bureau estimate). The buzz that accompanied him at his first two collegiate stops is noticeably absent here.
“I feel like hype is false,” he said. “Hype is something that’s not proven. I really don’t look at it. I don’t pay attention to all the media attention. It’s good to get a lot of media clips, but if you’re focused on that, you’re not focused on the game. You’re not focused on your performance.”
Unquestionably, that’s his priority.
California came to Portis’ attention after an aunt remembered watching the Vulcans play on television last fall. Kevin McCabe, a one-time Virginia quarterback, was a crucial component in a 12-2 season.
Luckhardt said McCabe arrived with a similar knock as Portis - a struggle to pick up a complex playbook. McCabe, despite years of accumulated rust, handled California’s scheme just fine, rolling up 3,214 yards and 32 touchdowns.
“Kevin McCabe graduated for Virginia, and this kid graduated from Maryland,” Luckhardt said. “They’re not dumb, OK? They’re not dumb. Sometimes you just need to start over. He may struggle this year; he may not. I just know if he keeps working as hard as he’s working, we think we’re going to have an exceptional quarterback.”
Luckhardt built California into a playoff team in part by casting a wide net for talent seeking second chances. And as a veteran coach who was the starting center on Purdue’s Rose Bowl team after the 1966 season, he has witnessed all sorts of quarterbacks - but none quite like Portis.
As a result, Portis’ opportunity to express his abilities - which both he and Luckhardt insists remain intact - finally will arrive when the Vulcans host Saginaw Valley State on Aug. 27.
“I don’t know what kind of offense they run up there, but I would think they don’t see many athletes like him,” Friedgen said. “I would think he would have a chance to do real well. To me, I think he’ll be a man among boys. That’s good. Hopefully he’ll do well and enjoy that part of his life.”
Consider it the new Portis Plan. Since Portis graduated and played only two seasons, Luckhardt said he’ll have two years of eligibility in Division II to finally come through on the potential that has mesmerized coaches and fans for years.
“I’m itching,” Portis said.
“For real,” he nodded.
Even if his twisting career landed in a place he could have never fathomed when he was the latest well-regarded high school prospect to come around the bend.
“I did not think I was going to be in California, Pa.,” Portis said. “I did not. But I’m here, so let’s make it happen.”