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Joey Bosa's secret routine helped turn brother Nick into 'the best player in college football'

Yahoo Sports
Ohio State’s Nick Bosa is projected to be one of the top picks in the 2019 NFL draft. (AP)

COLUMBUS, Ohio – On an overcast spring day in the Ohio State football facility, Nick Bosa’s face looks incredulous. Bosa, a hulking All-America defensive end, is talking about his religious devotion to stretching, the paradox of enhancing a violent sport with seemingly benign postures.

A reporter asks Bosa if he’s flexible enough to press his palms against the ground while standing up with his legs straight. He shoots a sideways glance, bends at his waist and casually leans over, pressing both palms firm into the turf of Ohio State’s indoor facility. He then glances up skeptically, curious how anyone could doubt a 6-foot-4, 265-pound man’s ability to bend like a yoga instructor. “Oh, yeah,” Bosa said nonchalantly. “I’m very flexible.”

Nick Bosa is the younger brother of Joey Bosa, a former Buckeye who went No. 3 overall in the 2016 NFL draft, won Defensive Rookie of the Year and earned a Pro Bowl nod last year. Joey Bosa is among the five best defensive ends in football and appears destined for a payday in the neighborhood of $100 million.

NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah considers Nick Bosa “the best player in college football,” and his accelerated development and parallel career plane can be attributed to the lessons learned from his brother.

“Obviously Nick has God-given talent,” said John Bosa, the Bosa brothers’ dad who also played defensive line in the NFL. “Compound that with none of the mistakes and all of the advantages that Joey had to share … in this snapshot Nick is going to be a little more evolved.”

Joey Bosa’s transformation from high school “meathead” to NFL biomechanical body disciple shaped Nick Bosa’s ascent to stardom at Ohio State. Joey Bosa missed the opening game of the 2015 Buckeyes season with a suspension and partied too much early in his career, having to eventually live by himself at Ohio State. These days, he abstains from alcohol and sugar and hired a private coach to work on his flexibility and injury prevention. Nick Bosa, a junior headed for an inevitable NFL departure, has watched and learned everything, including transforming his body through borrowing his brother’s intricate stretching routine. “In a way, Nick has benefited from Joey’s extraordinary meat-headedness,” joked OSU strength coach Mickey Marotti.

The early buzz on Nick Bosa is that he’s outplayed a class of defensive linemen – Michigan’s Rashan Gary, Houston’s Ed Oliver and Clemson’s fearsome foursome – and positioned himself for Heisman Trophy buzz as an elite player on a College Football Playoff contender. He’s already scored a touchdown against Oregon State, recovered two fumbles and knocked Rutgers starting quarterback Artur Sitkowski out of the game with a vicious sack.

To predict that Nick Bosa – aka Smaller Bear – will end up as the No. 1 pick or end up in the same rarified NFL air as his brother – Bigger Bear – isn’t much of a stretch. In fact, that prediction can be traced back to a series of stretches, a daily routine that symbolizes how Nick Bosa has taken his brother’s lessons to loosen up and shorten the learning curve.

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Here’s the thing about stretching: It’s kind of boring. No one is making YouTube hype videos soundtracked by “Chariots of Fire” or tracking all-time incremental hamstring mobility in their media guide. And that’s perhaps what makes Nick Bosa’s secret daily routine so fascinating. There’s little instant gratification, a mature perspective and, well, a lot of dedication.

Every day since the summer of 2017, Nick Bosa has executed a dynamic stretching routine with the help of an Ohio State athletic trainer named Tyler Deam. Bosa learned it from his brother’s personal trainer, former Chargers strength and conditioning coach Todd Rice, who Marotti spoke with about the theory behind it.

For a half-hour every day – sometimes it’s two or three times a day – Nick Bosa goes through a “full lower extremity stretch” of his hamstrings, hip flexors, groin muscles, calves, glutes and quads.

The routine has helped with injury prevention, leverage from getting low and keeping loose to better flip his hips and attack the quarterback. He’s so loyal to it that he says, only half-joking, that Deam “is definitely one of the most important people in my life right now.”

Deam describes the series of “contract and relax stretches” as active enough that Bosa breaks a sweat. Essentially, Bosa will pull his hamstring – or whatever body part – to the limit of his flexibility and when it contracts, Deam will push to stretch it further. Deam noted Bosa’s dedication is impressive, as it can take two to three weeks to feel looser. Over time, however, the impact has been significant.

Nick Bosa (second from left) followed in the footsteps of his brother, Joey (right), when he committed to Ohio State on Feb. 3, 2016. Now he’s trying to follow his brother to the NFL as a top-10 draft pick. (Credit: Charles Trainor, Jr./Getty file photo)

Deam and Bosa chat about Game of Thrones, their golf games and, of course, Joey’s Chargers. And their daily devotion has paid dividends.

While seated, Bosa can reach his fingertips 10 inches past his toes while sitting down with his legs locked. (Most normal humans struggle to touch their toes.) That’s the highest number of any Ohio State player regardless of position, according to Marotti. That gives Nick Bosa ballerina flexibility to accentuate his rarified pass-rushing genetics.

“I’ve never seen anyone that size be able to bend like him,” Deam said in a phone interview. “I joke with him, ‘If football doesn’t work out for you, you can always do gymnastics.'”

To understand how Nick Bosa found a football cheat code, it’s necessary to start with Joey Bosa’s primitive workout roots. The Bosa Brothers – Big Bear (23) and Smaller Bear (20) – grew up preordained to become NFL lineman. Their father, John Bosa, and uncle, Eric Kumerow, were both defensive ends drafted in the first round by the Miami Dolphins. After Joey committed to Ohio State in in April 2012, John Bosa found himself calling Marotti to help shift his son’s mentality away from auditioning for the World’s Strongest Man.

When Joey Bosa got to the NFL, he held out as a rookie and then missed the first four games with a hamstring injury. While working to rehab his hamstring, Bosa connected with Rice. As they worked to get his hamstring healthy, Rice began educating Bosa on the biomechanics of how his body works. “He wasn’t selling to me, he was teaching me,” Joey Bosa said. “That grasped me from the beginning.”

Joey Bosa continued a rigorous stretching routine after the hamstring healed and felt the gradual but significant changes. Throughout high school and college, he’d developed knee tendinitis and back pain so persistent that he’d be uncomfortable driving and have to stand during meals. Those faded away with monk-like devotion to stretching with Rice. He said the flexibility of his leg went from 75 degrees to 125 while lying on his back. Basically, he can bring his leg close to his head while lying down. “It’s really shocking,” Joey Bosa said. “It would blow people’s minds.”

The scouts have noticed the difference in Nick Bosa, as he’s shown he’s twitchier than last season. His sharp uptick in production through two games has him among the nation’s leaders in sack yards (No. 1 with 31), sacks (No. 3 with 1.5 per game) and TFLs (No. 10 with 2.5 per game). And while scouts are hesitant to hail Nick as better than Joey – he’s an elite NFL player, after all – they have noticed a difference in how he’s prepared. “Nick is looser in the hips and agile as a pass rusher, but Joey is much stronger,” said a veteran NFL scout. “Nick looks much improved compared to last year, as you can see he’s in better shape.”

No one has seen a bigger difference than Joey, who says the results will transfer to the NFL combine in February. “I know for a fact he’s going to absolutely destroy my combine times,” Joey Bosa told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview recently.

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John Bosa could only chuckle watching his sons work out this summer. While at Boston College in the mid-1980s and through three seasons with the Dolphins (1987-98), he jokes that he subsisted on a diet of red meat, desserts and beer, with a few vegetables thrown in. John Bosa was naturally a 220-pound man attempting to fill the role of a 280-pound lineman, so keeping on weight felt like a part-time job.

It’s a little different watching his sons. Their diet is more Whole Foods than his days of caloric indulgences, as John Bosa said both abstain from sugar. Those weren’t exactly tenets of the 1980s NFL. “When I watch them train, [Rice] is training them more like a sprinter,” John Bosa said. “When we played, we were training like powerlifters. It’s really all about speed.”

The results have worked. According to Marotti, Nick Bosa can run the 10-yard dash – a key metric to gauge a lineman’s burst – in 1.53 seconds timed electronically. The fastest time of any lineman at the combine last season was 1.55, and the average lineman time was 1.68. (Joey’s was 1.68 at the 2016 combine.)

Ohio State defensive lineman Nick Bosa, left, sacks Oregon State quarterback Conor Blount during the first half Sept. 1, 2018, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

Joey Bosa is such a believer that when the Chargers fired Mike McCoy’s staff following his rookie year, Bosa put Rice on his own payroll. (Rice declined comment for this story.) John Bosa said that Nick will work with Rice through the combine, though he’s unsure after that point. Joey is so prepared for his brother to pummel his combine marks that he chuckles thinking of how people will freak out about it. “Oh my God, he’s so much better than his brother!” he said, mocking the potential reaction. “It will be funny. I know it’s coming.”

The two haven’t played together since high school, and John Bosa admits to finding the comparison questions he gets about them “annoying.” “The thing that I’m most proud of is the fact that they’re best friends,” he said. “It’s rare to find brothers as close as they are.”

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The on-field football constant in the brothers’ lives is Larry Johnson, the 67-year-old Ohio State defensive line coach who is considered a Yoda of technique in the nuanced world of defensive line play. The Bosa Brothers refer to him as “Coach J” and speak of him in terms that border on reverence. Joey believes in him so much he plans to go work with him on technique next offseason. He says he’s incorporated Johnson’s teachings and techniques in San Diego. Nick gives Buckeye recruits the ultimate pitch on Johnson: “I would go anywhere that he was, it’s as simple as that.”

Nick Bosa became convinced of Johnson’s techniques when he watched film of his brother his freshman season, when he learned under former line coach Mike Vrabel. Nick saw his brother just bowling over opponents with power, as he didn’t start using refined techniques – side scissor-hand swipes, hip flips and power steps – until Johnson arrived the next season. “He doesn’t just coach kids, he invests in them,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said this spring. “And he invests everything he has.”

The coalescing of Johnson’s tactics and Rice’s training come together at Nick Bosa’s hips. It’s Johnson’s philosophy to “bring the fight” to the offensive lineman, and once contact is made the ability for an end to turn their hips and get around him is often the difference between a sack or hurry and getting pushed out of the play. “You want to turn your hips,” Nick Bosa said. “And when you get square past the tackles, once your foot gets in the ground, you’re straight at the tackle and you’re not dipping around.”

On Saturday, Nick Bosa will be looking to continue his dominant junior season when No. 4 Ohio State plays No. 15 TCU. He sees this Buckeye team as having the caliber of talent to win the national championship, just like his big brother’s team did in 2014. That’s the immediate focus, and that caliber of stage could come with the ancillary benefits of some family bragging rights.

“It’d be funny if I could go higher than him, but it’s not number one on my goals,” Nick Bosa said. “Obviously I want to go as high as I possibly can, but it’s not the fact that I’m beating him that’s driving me.”

He paused. Smiled. And laid out a scenario that’s not much of a, well, stretch. “It would be a funny conversation if I went second, obviously.”

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