FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Nick Hicks parked his matte green Ford pickup truck in the driveway about 15 minutes before his 7 a.m. training session and could already hear the music blaring.
Sometimes, Bruno Mars is playing. Other times, it’s country music with a George Strait focus. And often, it’s some Hawaiian music he’s heard so much the past four months.
Hicks, trainer and co-owner of Per4orm training facility in Davie, arrived early to warm up his client.
But Tua Tagovailoa, the second-year Miami Dolphins quarterback working up a sweat in his home garage, was already warmed up.
“I just can’t wait for him to silence the haters who think he’s not the guy — because he’s the guy,” said Hicks, a longtime Dolphins fan, co-owner of Batch Cookie Company in Plantation and Fort Lauderdale, and a former quarterback at Plantation’s American Heritage High.
“I know deep down in my heart, that he is going to bring us AFC championships as well as possible Super Bowls if we build around him.”
The Dolphins have the same hope in Tagovailoa, who hired Hicks to get him into the best shape of his life.
Sure, Tagovailoa’s hip and health held up during his first 10 games, and he gained valuable NFL experience. He was 6-3 as the Dolphins starter, following his gruesome college hip injury in November 2019.
But not being able to play up to his personal standard took a toll — even before the offseason noise surrounding his play and quarterback trade rumors began to churn.
When Hicks first began training Tagovailoa in late February, he noticed a serious and stoic person — far from the fun-loving, joyful guy he’s come to know while training him.
“The kid was a shell of himself,” Hicks said of Tagovailoa. “He was at an all-time low confidence wise.”
‘A learning year’
You can call them what you want: excuses, causes for concern or mitigating factors.
No offseason activities for NFL players last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Being a game manager with some discomfort with play-calling. A lack of chemistry with or playmaking from teammates.
Being benched twice during the Dolphins’ chase for their third playoff berth in the past two decades. His worst game coming in a blowout loss at Buffalo that saw Miami finish 10-6, just one win shy of the postseason.
And don’t forget the comparisons to Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert, who played better as fellow rookies, or the trade rumors involving Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers with the Dolphins having a bounty of draft picks to trade for either player.
“He had a first year which was a learning year,” said longtime agent Leigh Steinberg, who represents Tagovailoa. “And look, it’s a long offseason and trade talk is always interesting, but assume he is the Dolphins quarterback for now and the future. I think they’ve already got a winner.”
As the Dolphins’ 2020 season ended, Tagovailoa was one year removed from having his hip dislocated and his hip wall fractured while running on a high ankle sprain that was surgically repaired two weeks earlier.
Tagovailoa’s body was not where it needed to be to perform or live up to the high expectations set with his championship touchdown pass in 2017, and play as one of college football’s best quarterbacks at Alabama before his injury.
Tagovailoa did not have an in-season workout program last year outside of Dolphins practices to maintain or gain overall strength.
And following some time off, Tagovailoa reached about 16% body fat before working with Hicks.
“I think it was more him, getting to a low part in his life, where ‘I know I’m not playing well, but that was because my body is not like this,’ ” Hicks said of Tagovailoa. “ ‘I’m not the type of player that I am. I need to figure out how to get back to it.’ ”
As a rookie, Tagovailoa did not throw a pass longer than 35 yards, had just two games with more than 300 yards passing and did not throw more than two touchdowns in any game.
Other averages like his 58.3 total quarterback rating (QBR), 6.3 yards per attempt and 181.4 yards per game ranked between 26th and 33rd among NFL quarterbacks last season.
“What happened last year, it happened, and that’s what my rookie year looked like,” Tagovailoa said recently. “It wasn’t what I expected, so that’s why I’ve been working really hard this offseason to help our team this Year 2 for me, this upcoming season.”
So, Tagovailoa began his offseason transformation. He hired a personal chef, started taking supplements and worked a 15-week program designed by Hicks that ended before the Dolphins’ mandatory minicamp.
Mondays were for lower-body strength. Tuesdays, upper body. Wednesdays brought exercises for balance, stability and proprioception, which aim to improve body and space perception like pocket presence and field awareness. Thursdays were for lower body again. And Fridays, Tagovailoa maxed out on his upper-body strength to build muscular endurance.
Tagovailoa also worked on a series of plyo ball and weighted ball workouts, ranging from 3-32 ounces on both spectrums of a 14-15 oz. football, to ensure he releases the football at the same angle with every pass thrown while improving accuracy and velocity.
After those hourlong garage workouts, Tagovailoa would join some of Hicks’ other NFL clients, such as running backs Dalvin Cook, J.K. Dobbins and Devin “Motor” Singletary, for some field work, which happened daily for the first two months of his training.
Then, Tagovailoa joined the others just twice a week after garage workouts, because he was throwing the other two days, sometimes with Dolphins receivers.
After 12 weeks, Tagovailoa just worked on explosive sled workouts and overall conditioning workouts while also placing an emphasis on improving his speed and change of direction.
Now, Tagovailoa is around 10-11% body fat — right where Hicks wanted him to be during his training.
And there’s a noticeable difference in Tagovailoa’s physique from photos and videos posted on social media this offseason.
“I think my hip feels 10 times better than it did last year and the confidence level for myself, I feel really confident coming into this second year after that injury two years ago,” Tagovailoa said a month ago.
“As far as in how I feel overall, both physically and mentally, I think I’m at a better stage than I was last year.”
Added Hicks: “It’s crazy how much stronger he is. It’s crazy. I’d say like three times [stronger]. He was pretty weak when we started. You work out 2 1/2 hours, five days a week, you’re going to get results.”
‘Season can’t come soon enough’
Tagovailoa’s improved confidence is a great stride. But he’s still far from a finished product. And that’s OK, as long as he continues to make steady progress as an NFL quarterback.
In his first minicamp practice with teammates, Tagovailoa threw five interceptions during a rain-soaked affair. He said his goal and instructions were to be aggressive and push the ball down the field and into tight windows despite the conditions.
One day later, coach Brian Flores was asked if he was concerned Tagovailoa might regress in terms of his aggressiveness.
Flores succinctly replied: “I don’t think Tua is going into a shell.” And he publicly encouraged Tagovailoa to remain persistent, test the waters and improve.
In Tagovailoa’s next practice, he threw zero interceptions. He did have some trouble in red-zone and goal-line plays, holding onto the football longer than he should have at times.
But Tagovailoa ended practice with two electric touchdown throws to receivers Jaylen Waddle and DeVante Parker on his final three plays, which excited his Dolphins teammates — at least on offense that day.
“I’m happy he’s our quarterback,” tight end Mike Gesicki said last month. “I can tell you that firsthand, the guys in the locker room, we all believe in him, we all respect him and we’re all excited about him.”
As for the rest of the offseason, Tagovailoa’s workout regimen will include maintenance-type workouts to keep him crisp and fresh before training camp.
Hicks and Tagovailoa also have plans for an in-season program, three days a week, to ensure he maintains his strength.
“It’s non-stop, throughout the whole year,” Hicks said. “There’s going to be a continuation.”
The hope, for Tagovailoa and the Dolphins, is the strides he’s made this offseason translate to a successful 2021 campaign.
And maybe Tagovailoa’s renewed spirit leads to some vintage Tua along the way.
“A healthy Tua is a confident Tua. And a confident Tua is like Tuscaloosa Tua, who’s just out there, having fun, slinging it, throwing it around and getting everybody touches, and scoring a lot of points,” Hicks said, referring to Tagovailoa’s time in college.
“He didn’t enjoy playing football last year. He didn’t enjoy it. Now, every single day, he’s like ‘I cannot wait to get back out there. I cannot wait to play. The season can’t come soon enough.’ ”