Weight loss led Kevin Minter to every-down role for Cardinals

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Those pork chops.

As soon as Kevin Minter mentioned them, his eyes diverted.

He looked distracted. The third-year Arizona Cardinals inside linebacker hasn’t had his mother’s pork chops since at least January. It doesn’t matter how perfectly she cooks them in her Atlanta kitchen -- or how much she smothers them (“That’ll mess you up,” Minter said with a cocked head and sideway look) -- Minter has stayed dedicated to a new workout and nutrition plan that’s kept him 20 pounds lighter and on the field for nearly every defensive play this season.

But that doesn’t mean he can’t take a minute to reflect and savor the memory of her smothered pork chops or corn bread, or all the other fried goodness she’d prepare for her family. As good as those memories were, it was even harder to not indulge during an offseason trip back home.

“Oh man, like pulling teeth … because you smell it and you don’t want it until you smell it,” Minter said. “‘Damn, you going to smother it too, Mom?’

“I’ll go over here with my celery and chicken breast.”

Eating better was just one reason why Minter has dropped down to 237 pounds from his 2014 playing weight of 245. He dedicated himself from just after the Super Bowl in early February to losing weight and trimming his body fat. His belief that he could’ve handled an every-down role at a higher weight last season was firm but Minter has recognized how offenses have changed even during his three years in the NFL -- and he felt a lighter, faster frame was needed.

“It’s not necessarily downhill anymore,” Minter said. “It’s part of the reason I dropped down so much this offseason. It’s the game now. It's pitch and catch.”

Minter enlisted the help of Spencer Tatum, the national performance director at Advantage Training in Scottsdale, Arizona. The pair had worked together in the 2014 offseason but what was awaiting them earlier this year didn’t compare.

First, Minter had to recover from a pectoral injury that hampered him for most of the 2014 season. It made pushing off blocks difficult. It also prevented Minter from doing a pushup until midseason.

“I definitely wasn’t going to get a 300-pound guy off me,” he said. “If it was really just me throwing my body around, it wasn’t really efficient. I made it work but, especially toward the end, I got used to it.”

This season has been “night and day” playing with a healthy chest.

The plan was to get Minter’s pec healed first, then increase his aerobic function and then build intensity, which would lead to Minter’s weight loss, Tatum said. Once the pec healed, Tatum began the transformation of Kevin Minter.

“We had to basically rebuild him up and we started off with just building him back into function,” Tatum said.

Tatum had Minter running track workouts that reminded Minter of high school days. He ran 100s then increased to 200s, 300s, 400s and 500s – and then back again. On the downslope of those workouts, Tatum decreased the time between reps, forcing Minter’s body to adapt to shorter rests, which was one reason why he’s been able to play be an every-down linebacker this year.

Another phase of Minter’s workouts was in the weight room, where Tatum put Minter through lifts with barbells and kettle bells, had him do TRX, plyometrics, speed ladders and sleds. While Minter progressed through Tatum’s plan, Tatum was careful not to start change-of-direction work too soon.

Based off Arizona’s performance in 2014, Tatum felt a deep run in 2015 was all but expected so he wanted to keep Minter as fresh as possible. They’ve continued working out during the season to maintain Minter’s gains.

“If we go out and crush his joints now early in the offseason what’s he going to feel like in Week 16 and the playoffs?” Tatum said.

When it was time to start working on Minter’s change of pace and change of direction, Tatum had Minter on rowing machines, Versaclimbers and Assault bikes. Then he moved workouts to a field, where they used bungees and harnesses.

“It was some of the best conditioning I ever did in my life,” Minter said. “It’s worked wonders as far as holding speed and conditioning and what not. Losing weight, it wasn’t even really about losing the weight. l lost that body fat and gained muscle.”

Tatum watched his plan work. Minter had lost 20 pounds of fat but Tatum said Minter didn’t lose a single pound of muscle.

The final piece of Minter’s transformation was his nutrition.

His days of devouring mom’s cooking were over. Unlike other years, he spent most of his offseason in Arizona, partly because the weather was better for training and partly because he didn’t want to be tempted by his mother’s kitchen.

Tatum turned Minter on to a healthy meal delivery service called Sunfare. Through a food sensitivity tests, Tatum was able to see exactly what foods caused Minter swelling and discomfort, which led to a specifically tailored diet. His three meals a day are delivered to his home and he totes a green cooler bag with him to the Cardinals’ practice facility.

Minter embraced his new culinary routine.

On a car-shopping trip to North Scottsdale with his girlfriend, Minter forgot his lunch at his Chandler home, about a half-hour drive. In a panic, Minter called Tatum with questions on what and where he could eat to continue his strict diet. Tatum gave him the names of a few places and Minter had salmon, sautéed vegetables and a baked potato without butter or sour cream.

“It worked wonders for me this offseason,” Minter said.

Minter took his first clue that losing weight was needed by watching Karlos Dansby during Minter's rookie season and Larry Foote last year. Both veteran inside linebackers were signed to play Minter’s role. He watched everything they did, from Dansby’s obsession with his diet -- a program similar to Minter’s -- to Foote’s dedication to film. Minter saw Foote studying tape in the training room, the whirlpools and at home. He’d listen to Foote ask questions or raise concerns based on what he saw on tape.

Minter was soaking it all in, and he noticed that neither player's weight climbed into the 240s.

“I was like maybe that’s a sign,” Minter said. “Maybe I should be doing what they’re doing.”

Minter reported to training camp at 237 pounds, the lowest weight of his professional career. And it’s led to a productive first half of the season. He already has 47 tackles, three more than he had all of last season, while playing 449 of Arizona’s 495 defensive snaps.

“I think it helped him in pass coverage a lot,” coach Bruce Arians said of Minter’s weight loss.

Every time a new veteran was signed, the criticism that Minter wasn’t capable of being a three-down linebacker continued to build. Minter just “put it on my back,” knowing he wasn’t drafted in the second round to play on just first and second downs.

That didn’t stop Minter’s frustration from building. The last two seasons were humbling for Minter, who called them a “blessing in disguise.”

Minter’s been through this before.

At LSU, he sat behind Kelvin Sheppard for two seasons until Minter was given an opportunity to be the Tigers’ starting inside linebacker in his third season. He parlayed that into a first-team All-SEC season which led to Arizona drafting him in the second round in 2013.

So, Minter’s been here before. Now he’s just trimmer and faster.

“I’m kind of looking forward to now,” Minter said. “Just trying to almost show them up a little bit.”