Texans’ Laremy Tunsil’s COVID comeback game plan: running in local parks

Laremy Tunsil took a creative, grass-roots approach to staying in shape when he arrived at an unanticipated conditioning crossroads: figuring out how to get his extra running in while recuperating from a bout with COVID-19 after testing positive in August.

The venue didn’t matter much to the Texans’ two-time Pro Bowl left offensive tackle. 

It was all about the work, regardless of the strange looks Tunsil got from parents and children while the imposing 6-foot-5, 313-pound former Miami Dolphins first-round draft pick ran sprints at a local playground.

For Tunsil, yes, it was a bit odd. In the big picture, though, the overtime work running 100-yard sprints paid dividends as he made it back from a positive test prior to the Texans’ Aug. 14 preseason game against the Green Bay Packers to play every offensive snap last Sunday during a 37-21 season-opening victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars at NRG Stadium.

“I found a way to stay in shape, especially when I got it,” said Tunsil, who was temporarily isolated from his teammates under NFL regulations after testing positive. “I think I was sick for a couple of days. Just went to a park and started running, just try to stay in shape as much as I can.

“Random parks, I just had to stay in shape. It was bad. There was kids out there. Like I had to wear a mask, I am out there sweating with a mask on. Yeah, they did look at me weird, like, ‘What is he doing?’ But I had to stay in shape. I’m still getting there man, still getting there. Try to run sprints after practice.”

As much as Tunsil, a 27-year-old former Mississippi star, is a high-profile NFL player and the highest paid offensive lineman on the roster and one of the more expensive players in the league, he remained a large, anonymous figure at the park. No one recognized him.

“No, I didn’t,” he said. “Thank God I didn’t.” 

Tunsil was one of the few bright spots on a 4-12 team last season and is regarded as a key figure in the Texans’ rebuilding project as arguably their most talented overall offensive player.

During his first two seasons with the Texans, Tunsil was named to the Pro Bowl. He became the first Texans offensive lineman to be named to the Pro Bowl last season since left tackle Duane Brown did so in 2014.

“LT is a phenomenal, natural athlete who’s much stronger than people realize,” said former Dolphins executive vice president of football operations and New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum, who drafted Tunsil 13th overall in 2016. “I think he’ll just keep improving and getting better because football is really important to him. For the Texans as a franchise, he’s really important because of his skills and how critical the position that he plays is to an organization. If you’re looking for someone capable of protecting the quarterback, it’s him, hands down.”

The Texans have high hopes for Tunsil, who played 78 snaps against the Jaguars and is building up his energy to get back to full strength.

“Again, Laremy was out for a while, and for him to be able to go the distance for us was good,” Texans coach David Culley said. “ I think there is a better Laremy still there, and I think once he gets his stamina and everything back that we will be okay there.”

Houston Texans v New Orleans Saints

Photo: Getty Images

The Texans activated Tunsil from the reserve-COVID-19 list two weeks ago, so he had to get up to speed and shed rust in a hurry before getting back on the field against the Jaguars in his first game action since last December.

“I had to battle through some sickness,” Tunsil said. “Try to get well. Try to find a way to stay in shape and help the team any way I can when I had COVID. I’m glad I’m over it. Hopefully, I don’t have to go through that again.”

Tunsil was assigned a relatively low 56.9 blocking grade from Pro Football Focus against the Jaguars, but he wasn’t penalized and didn’t allow a sack. Texans quarterback Tyrod Taylor was only sacked once and the Texans rushed for 160 yards and two touchdowns.

“I’m a tough critic on myself, so there’s a lot of improvement for me,” Tunsil said. “I want to just keep improving the run game and the pass game each and every week.

“Man, we got to do it each and every week. That’s our goal. I think that’s our offensive line goal, to keep the quarterback clean and untouched.”

Heading into Sunday’s road game against the Cleveland Browns, the 1-0 Texans are facing a difficult challenge against a formidable pass rushing tandem against two former top overall draft picks and Pro Bowl selections: defensive ends Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney.

“They are great players,” Tunsil said. “We have to come with our hard hats on and work. It’s going to be a battle for sure. In the game plan, we are mixing up some things to get those boys off track. The main thing is stick to our game plan and just come and be ready to play.

“I love the battle. Let’s do it man. You got to compete and I think that’s the best thing about being in the NFL, is you see great pass rushers every week. Got to be ready to compete.”

One year after signing Tunsil to a three-year, $66 million contract extension that included $50 million guaranteed with a $13 million signing bonus, the Texans restructured that deal this offseason to create $10.106 million in salary cap space. Signed to a three-year, $66 million contract extension a year ago that included $50 million guaranteed with a $13 million signing bonus with an average of $22 million annually, Tunsil's original $16.15 million base salary was converted into a $15.16 million signing bonus. He now has a $990,000 fully guaranteed base salary for 2021 and a salary cap figure of $9.29 million, down from $19.4 million. 

His contract and his teammates' respect reflects Tunsil's status.

“He's obviously a generational offensive line player,” center Justin Britt said.

Including the fifth-year club option of $10.85 million Tunsil was paid last year, the deal still has a total value of $76.35 million and was negotiated by Tunsil directly with former Texans coach and general manager Bill O’Brien while being advised by California-based business advisor Saint Omni of Lifeline Financial Group and business manager Laolu Sanni.

“Even though LT has been recognized as an elite tackle, as one of the best in the league, he’s been working for that All-Pro status for nobody to be able to question his elite status and just becoming a better leader for the whole team and leading by example,” Sanni said. “All the hard work that he put in this offseason is definitely going to show this season.”

The Texans, one of the most criticized teams this offseason, delivered a strong performance Sunday in the season-opener.

When asked about the naysayers, Tunsil said they’re far from his focus.

“Let’s keep putting on performances like we did last Sunday,” Tunsil said. “That’s the only thing we can do. Just shut up and work.” 

Acquired in a trade from the Dolphins for a pair of first-round draft picks two years ago, Tunsil has a lot of power, strength, agility and quickness working in his favor. Tunsil was flagged for just six penalties last season and allowed two sacks for a 75.4 overall Pro Football Focus grade, according to the analytics-based website.

“He’s a very, very gifted player, there’s no question," new Texans offensive line coach James Campen said. "He’s been blessed with some unique skillsets and he can do a lot of different things very well."

Tunsil maintains a simple approach to the game: working diligently on his technique and blocking the man in front of him.

“I just want to improve as a player, as much as I can,” Tunsil said. “If that’s the run game, pass game, screen game, being a leader, whatever it is, I just want to improve in every aspect.”

Tunsil made major strides in his conditioning, adding lean muscle and upgrading his stamina by lifting heavier weights and performing explosive movements while rehabilitating a torn labrum in his shoulder last year while training with former Texans and Denver Broncos strength coach and physical therapy specialist Billy Voltaire of Volt Performance. He spent a significant amount of time this offseason working with his college strength coach, Dominic Studzinski, who’s now at Liberty University.

Tunsil, Sanni and his brother, Alex Weber, a Houston-based trainer and former Mississippi and Dolphins wide receiver, traveled to Lynchburg, Va., this offseason to train with Studzinski again. The workouts are intense, and the location is remote and allowed Tunsil to focus on self-improvement.

“That's a place that's kind of isolated from everything,” Tunsil said. “It's where my trainer is at, I've been working with him since my rookie year, Dominic Studzinski. Just going out there and getting your mind right, staying focused, just a peaceful environment, just to focus on you, it's good to get back to your roots.”

The improvement and increased comfort level in Tunsil was obvious last season.

“Laremy’s a freak,” Texans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly said. “He's really big. He's really strong. The more we get to work with him, you really see how detailed he is, particularly in his individual technique. It's been really good for those younger guys to be able to see how a man as talented as he is still comes out and works, and you can see him just drenched at the end of the day because he's taking all those reps. It's really important to him.”

Tunsil provided a helping hand this year to those impacted by Winter Storm Uri, distributing supplies in a partnership with the Houston Boys & Girls Club and the Houston Food Bank with Legacy Philanthropy. Tunsil also donated up to $250,000 for relief efforts during the coronavirus pandemic, including donations to the Florida Gateway Food Bank in his hometown of Lake City and the Star of Hope Mission in Houston. Tunsil also set up an email system to help those in need, sorting through the messages to pay electricity bills, car notes and rent.

“From the moment he got traded to Houston, Houston became his new home,” Sanni said. “He’s a natural giver and philanthropy is close to his heart. He wants to look out for the underprivileged and give back and plant seeds and be a helping hand to our community.”

Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 seasons, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128.

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