To me, one of the most fascinating storylines during the off season last year came in the form of the videos that began popping up on Twitter of several members of the Titans, presumably led by Kevin Byard working out with a local strength and conditioning coach.
That strength and conditioning coach is Jason Spray, the man who held that same title at Middle Tennessee State for 16 years, including the years that Byard spent there as a Blue Raider. Spray has worked with several NFL players over the course of his career including Erik Walden, Richie James, Cary Williams, Charvarius Ward (who’s starting for the Chiefs in their AFC Divisional showdown versus the Colts this Saturday) and many more.
Spray spoke exclusively to MCM about how he began training other Titan players such as Logan Ryan and Jayon Brown, how many Titans players he trained in total and how taking it back to their roots is the best way to prepare a professional athlete for the vigorous challenges the long NFL season presents.
JM: Who is Jason Spray and what do you do exactly?
JS: My name is Jason Spray and I was the strength and conditioning coach at Middle Tennessee State for the last 16 years. I had just handed in my resignation in January because I wanted to spend more time with my family. I am currently at Ensworth high school in the director’s role.
JM: You kinda made your waves around Titans twitter for releasing videos of you leading various training sessions with several Titans players. How many Titans players in total did you train last year?
JS: It would vary. How it started out was pretty cool. I’ve always trained Kevin Byard. That’s a great dude right there. He takes his time after the season to recuperate a little bit. He gets fresh mentally before coming back. I trained him all throughout college. Those first couple of years, he used to come back to train a little too early. In the college setting, your summer workouts typically begin in June and July. There were times where he [Kevin Byard] would try to come back a few weeks earlier than that. I used to tell him that sometimes, you have to get bored before you come back. If you love the game, you’ll get bored fairly quickly (laughs).
You have to get bored. You have to go home. A lot of times, these athletes can only go home for so long. They’re ready to get back at it. It’s the same thing now with the season being over. I may send them some little generic workouts just to break a sweat.
When I had first resigned, Byard reached out to me saying, “we’re still gonna work out together, right?” and I was like yeah, of course. We had to find somewhere to work out because I wasn’t at Middle Tennessee anymore. That didn’t mean we were gonna stop working together though. I called around and found a couple of nice high schools that allowed us to work out there.
Byard has been extremely successful and one thing we try to pride ourselves off of is that he’s always in excellent shape. When he was at MTSU, he played every snap two seasons in a row. We really take pride in conditioning and knock on wood, his durability.
The next thing you know, Logan Ryan shows up with him. Logan didn’t know me from a hole in the wall. I didn’t really know him either but we started working out together. They started posting a couple of things on social media and some of their other teammates started to reach out to them as they were in town as well. They started swinging through.
The solid core of the winter last year included Tye Smith, Byard, LeShaun Sims and Ryan. Johnathan Cyprien would pop in periodically. Tye [Smith] was in and out as well, these guys have a lot going on during the off season. The group just kept building. Jayon Brown and Quinton Spain stopped by a few times once we got into the summer.
It was cool. Those guys work hard and they’re humble guys. They’re no different from any other athlete I’ve ever trained.
JM: Obviously this all came together through your relationship with Byard. You just answered a few of my next questions. What sort of workouts would you put them through?
JS: You have to understand these guys are on another level. I’m not worried about chasing numbers with a barbell. That’s not their concern. They’re beyond that. We squat and we bench, but we stay away from the heavy barbell bench press stuff. The older you get, that barbell will get you hurt if you’re not careful. A lot of these guys are developed.
The thing that makes them special and that’s why they’re professional athletes is their elasticity and pliability. I’m talking about their ability to expand and rotate. Those are the types of things we really try to focus on. Being able to de-accelerate is what will prevent you from getting injured. That’s always been the key. We do a lot of single leg work and a lot of dumbbell work. There’s a lot of plyometrics involved. We focus on things of that nature. There’s a lot of body-weight calisthenics, pull-ups and push-ups. That’s always been my thing. I’m very creative. I take the basics and make them a little bit more exciting. I try to make it fun for the guys. These guys aren’t professional weightlifters or power-lifters. You have to find ways to put a spin on things to keep their attention.
One thing I learned a long time ago with athletes is that if you give them a little bit of what they want, the feel good, the mirror muscle stuff, the biceps, triceps, chest and back, they’ll be more inclined to give me what I want. The stability aspects that I look for.
You can only produce what u can absorb!! pic.twitter.com/oyAnLPYA0g— Jason Spray MS,CSCS (@JasonSpray) March 21, 2018
JM: That’s incredibly interesting to me. This is exactly why I was so curious to speak with you. I didn’t know what to expect and it’s cool to hear that it’s not all about chasing numbers or throwing weights around. Is that part of the strategy you use to keep them fresh during the season?
JS: I would say yes. Kevin Byard and Logan Ryan are the exact same way. They all wanted to go into OTA’s in excellent shape. The reason for that is they wanna be able to go in and compete. With there being a new coaching staff going into this season, that certainly played a part but this is kinda just how those guys are. They hold themselves to the highest standard. They wanna compete. Our whole thing has always been that if you’re in shape, there’s nothing negative a coach can really say or do to you. If you’re out there performing and you’re not huffing and puffing, that means you’re in shape.
We ran them a lot early last winter because that’s what Byard wanted. One of the things we do is that we always go back to our conditioning. We run. A lot of times, that will prevent those early camp hamstring injuries. The only way to prevent that is to get out and run. You see a lot of hamstring injuries early in camp and that’s due to a lack of preparation throughout the off season. That’s one of the major factors and what we try to prevent.
We would go about three or four days a week during the winter months. Even during the summer workouts, there’s not a huge difference between the winter and the summer. The overall reasoning was just those guys wanting to be in really good shape for OTA’s. We did a little more plyometric work than I normally would do with a college athlete during the winter.
Some of those guys when I got them didn’t seem advanced enough with their plyometrics for my liking so we worked on that. Typically with my program, I know where I want them to be. Byard is gifted. I don’t have to tell him what he is. God blessed him and he has an excellent work ethic. He’s what I want the other guys to look like as a finished product.
What I typically do with my program, I know where I want them to be. Sometimes it’s better to work the program backwards. We’ll do that instead of riding front to back. Doing that allows me to get them where I want them to be, even if I have to regress a little bit. It just helps with their overall progression to get to that final product.
JM: The Titans strength and conditioning job was momentarily open before they announced the hiring of Frank Piraino. Would you have had any interest in that?
JS: Yeah, who wouldn’t? There’s only 32 of those jobs in the world. You’re working with some of the best athletes in the world. Would it have been a blessing? Of course.
JM: If you had the opportunity to interview let’s say, what would your pitch have sounded like?
JS: My whole thing has always been this. Over the years, I’ve worked with Kelly Holcomb, the longtime quarterback. I’ve worked with guys like Erik Walden, Cary Williams, Renaldo Hill and a bunch of other guys. Even with guys like Byard and Ryan, my thing has always been that I think pro guys get away from their roots sometimes. When I say that, I mean that you hear a lot of those guys complaining that they’re not nearly as strong as they were when they were in college or I’m not in as good of shape as I was in college. I understand that if you’re a 15 year NFL vet. If you’re a young guy, if you’re under 30, why the hell were you in better shape in college?
That’s one of the things that we try to focus on. I always try to make sure that we stay at that grassroots level. It goes back to that college grind. That grind, that work is what got you to where you are. That’s just what I’ve always believed in. You can’t cheat hustle. You can’t cheat work ethic. If you cut corners, it’s gonna show. Whether you get hurt or you’re just not as productive, it’s gonna show. We all understand that age is gonna catch up to all of us eventually. Nobody outruns that. I’m 40 years old, I get that. I’m not what I once was. For those guys, they’re still strapping up. They have to be damn near close to what they were in college.
My job is to help them achieve that.
Regarding my pitch, being at a mid major for all those years like Middle Tennessee State, I think sometimes people put too much value on the logo on your shirt. Just because somebody worked at a Tennessee or Alabama, people think they’re better than the next guy because of that logo. I know I’ve always been at Middle Tennessee, but I’ve had the pleasure of working with good people. I still spend thousands of dollars a year to further my education. I’ve never put a value or limitation on myself because of the logo on my shirt. That’s one of the things we always preached to our kids when I was at Middle Tennessee. That’s why we would go against some of those SEC programs and kick their butts. They may look down on your logo but we never did. I never put a limitation on my knowledge on the kind of coach I am because of a logo.
The logo difference was never more than an opportunity or somebody giving you a chance.
JM: We’ve talked a lot about how you’ve helped guys like Kevin Byard and Logan Ryan with your program, I’m curious if you help with their diets as well?
JS: No, I don’t. I know that Logan Ryan lives a pretty holistic lifestyle for example. He eats pretty healthy. The position that I’ve been in with these guys has been purely from a training standpoint. A lot of those guys, when they go back to OTA’s and they go home, you’d be amazed at how in-tune they are with some of this stuff. The vegan lifestyle is becoming a lot more popular right now. The keto diet, paleo, Whole30 and whatever it may be, these guys are aware of all that. I don’t help in this area because they don’t need me too.
I’ve always known my role and I stick to it. If they have a question for me, I’m happy to answer. We’ll talk about how to supplement and stuff like that. They understand the big picture. A lot of these guys have their own chefs and meal plans and what not.