When he entered the NFL draft last spring, former Michigan State star edge rusher Kenny Willekes posted a video on Twitter that stunned some scouts and teams when he showed some extreme flexibility and athleticism.
How yoga is helping Michigan state football get back on track
If you ask some of his former teammates, it was the yoga.
“I remember talking to Kenny Willekes, he would talk about how flexible he was doing gymnastics,” Michigan State tight end Trenton Gillison said. “I'm not a gymnast, so I gotta find something to do some yoga.”
Yoga has now become an instrumental part of the Spartans weekly routine, including this past Sunday after their matchup against Maryland was not played the day before.
“There were a couple of players who asked if we could bring yoga back and we worked to do that,” Michigan State head football coach Mel Tucker said. “We've been doing yoga for the entire season. Sunday is usually our day off and so other than treatment, everything else is voluntary.”
“Even though we get quite a bit of participation in yoga, making that mandatory day we were able to get 100% participation in yoga.”
At tight end, Gillison has to do a lot for the Michigan State offense as offensive coordinator Jay Johnson described that position as the “MVP of the offense." With yoga, it allows him to be more in-tune with his body.
"I've always wanted to include yoga into my type of day,” Gillison said. “I really didn't have time to do that and now having that we have it mandatory on Sunday, I really take that as more time to be more flexible.”
Michigan State defensive tackle Naquan Jones stands at 6-foot-4 and 340 pounds. At a position that is known for being cut throat, and full of grit and grind, he’s not the type of person you would think of doing yoga.
"I live with Xavier (Henderson), Jalen Nailor and Naquan Jones, and I see them every Sunday they get banged up Saturday or something like that and they talk about how tight they are,” Gillison said. “As soon as we get done with our stretches and yoga, there's a slight difference. We feel a little bit better compared to how we were coming in Saturday and coming into it early on Sunday morning.”
In his time as defensive coordinator with the Chicago Bears, Tucker had players doing yoga. After players asked for it in East Lansing, he didn’t see the problem with offering more resources for his players.
“It can't hurt,” Tucker said. “It’s rest and recovery, your body is your business. So sleep, it’s nutrition, it's hydration, it’s rehab, prehab, what you do in a weight room, strength and conditioning, then any of the supplemental things that we can do for them in terms of yoga or whatever else that we can come up with. That's all part of the development of the player and the student-athlete.”
Yoga became a crucial part of the road to recovery for the Spartans after last week’s game against Maryland was cancelled. In their previous two games, the Spartans lost by a combined score of 73-7 and were in desperate need of a rest period.
“We used this week to recharge,” Tucker said. “To try to get more healthy, to really focus on technique and fundamentals and ultimately just grind here at State and in our football program.”
After finding out the game against Maryland was canceled, Tucker had to create a whole new practice schedule for the week. In response, the team had a walk-through on Northwestern on Friday, a shorts and helmets practice on Saturday, including the second and third string athletes having some padded practice and a mandatory practice day where players came in to recover on Sunday.
“We need to develop our entire roster,” Tucker said. “We owe that to our players, whether they're walk-ons, scholarship guys, freshmen guys, or young guys. If they're in our program, it's up to us to develop them as good as they can get.”
Michigan State will look to use this “recharge” to grow as a football team and head back home for a tough matchup versus Big Ten West division leader Northwestern.
“I feel like these few days have been very beneficial,” Jones said. “I mean you can't practice enough obviously, and then with a team like Northwestern, that's a team where you're going to have to have few to no mistakes at all to beat them. They're a very disciplined team and those extra days of practice really helped.”