There was a point early in his NFL career that Jets running back Joe McKnight was called “frail” and “undersized.” Then two months ago, the third-year running back was ridiculed for his weight gain, which he jokingly said was the result of a McDonald’s diet.
Nothing could be further from the truth for McKnight, whose offseason has been spent focusing on his fast-twitch muscles rather than fast food. Currently tipping the scales somewhere around 210 pounds, McKnight’s weight gain was all by design based on a healthy diet and a strict workout regimen at TEST Sports Clubs in Martinsville, N.J.
“I didn’t come in here to TEST in great shape because I was sitting down for a few weeks, but I’d say about that third week I was feeling good, feeling great. I still had some time before camp and I got into a grind here and headed into OTAs. From there, I felt so good I said that I’m going to stick with this,” McKnight told Metro.
“This is the best I’ve felt since I was 18 years old, coming out of high school.”
Four days a week McKnight and a handful of other Jets trained at TEST and he joined Bart Scott and Kyle Wilson for additional training three times per week at a local dojo where they do MMA drills. TEST owner and founder Brian Martin kept tabs of McKnight’s diet, recommending he switch from white rice to brown rice and adding more lean protein to his diet. Combined with the grueling workouts, McKnight put on size and added strength in a hurry.
“It is two-hour workouts, four days a week in here. The strength session is for the first hour to an hour and a half. Then it moves to conditioning, speed work, hills for at least a half hour to an hour,” said Geir Gudmundsen, the performance director at TEST. “It is all scientifically based. Building the foundation with stability first then we progress throughout the weeks. By the time Joe or any of these guys hit camp, they will be in peak physical shape.”
The workouts aren’t typical football workouts, but blend conditioning and strength training with an emphasis on core work and agility. On Tuesday at the TEST facility, McKnight went from station to station, doing pushups on an incline angle on a power plate machine then throwing a medicine ball against the wall non-stop for one minute. Then he went off and did footwork drills with Vlad Ducasse and Kenrick Ellis before getting stretched out.
“It is a lot of endurance based work. That’s why we lift a lot longer here. A lot of people want to do pure strength work, flip tires and do 1,000-lb. leg presses then go home,” Martin said. “That doesn’t help you in football, it doesn’t help you with an 88-yard return when you’re running down the field and need that extra bit to get across the goal line.”
McKnight wants to be ready to step in as a feature back this year and not merely a special teams player who adds an occasional wrinkle to the offense. If current starter Shonn Greene goes down, he says he wants to be ready to step in and assume “20 carries a game and be strong enough to take those hits.” When he arrived for OTAs this spring, new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano took one look at McKnight and asked if he was trying out for linebacker.
It is a far cry from a player who, when he entered the league, was so gassed during minicamp that he had to stop drills to vomit. But Gudmundsen and Martin both note that McKnight is now not only a physically stronger player but mentally he is tougher as well.
“I can admit my rookie year I didn’t have that mental toughness. That stuff I went through my rookie year, it taught me how to fight. What we do here is a lot of circuits and you’re fighting with your mind, competing with yourself. You are fighting the whole time, through the pain. I want to come to that fourth quarter in a game and it feel like it is the first quarter,” McKnight said.
“I wanted to get to camp between 208 pounds and 215 pounds. This wasn’t an accident. I wanted to get a weight to where, [when] I get to camp, I wanted to lose that [extra] weight [because] with the pads on and all you lose a lot of weight fast. [The Jets] wanted me at 208 pounds at the beginning of camp. I’m at 209 pounds to 210 pounds now. I was 213 pounds, so I had to drop a little bit. If I go in there overweight, they’re going to fine me. I was sick and tired of being labeled as a ‘special back.’ I don’t want to be in in just special situations. That’s why I want to get so big and work so hard.”
That McDonald’s quip from last month was a joke, he says. He thought when he said he had gotten big off a McDonald’s diet that reporters would notice he wasn’t just bigger but “bigger and stronger” and that he had spent the offseason in a conditioning program. Instead, the joke made headlines, something he regrets.
At least after the comment, McDonald’s began following McKnight on Twitter and the third-year running back doesn’t deny an occasional snack.
“I eat McDonald’s, but I eat good most of the days. It was taken out of context. I was joking. My workouts [are] good. I was looking big and they were all like ‘He looks big.’ So I was like ‘Yeah, I’m eating McDonald’s.’ It was taken out of context. Brian was helping me out there. I went from white rice to brown rice and I eat a lot of wheat pasta, a lot of protein like chicken, turkey, lean steak. I can feel the difference in the smarter choices that Brian and Geir are helping me make,” McKnight said.
“I was faithful, the days I was here, four days a week, I was real good. Wednesdays I might cheat a bit. Sundays I might cheat a bit. I wasn’t at McDonald’s everyday, you know? That was blown up. It wasn’t even double cheeseburgers every day. It was a treat here and there, like apple pie or something like that. But I worked hard and I think this season will show that. I worked to take the next step this season.”
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer as training camp gets underway this weekend.