The Best Is Yet To Come For Hubbard

Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard (94) at an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Monday, Sep. 30, 2019 in Pittsburgh. (NFL LCC/NFL)

The backyard door swings open and out in a flash, Henry, darts for adventure. The Labradoodle canvasses the grass with speed and intensity, just like his owner on the football field.

Henry is Sam Hubbard's dog and the duo have been inseparable for many years.

"I got my dog in fourth grade," Hubbard said. "He was mine ever since my brother (Jake) and sister (Madison) went to college. Now he's about 12 years old. Doing well though. He lives with me. His name is Henry. Labradoodle. That's my guy."

After a rookie season that saw the Bengals end with a 6-10 record and a coaching change, Hubbard vowed that there would be no offseason for him. He went straight into training for what he knew would be a pivotal time in his career.

Rather than taking a month-long exotic vacation or binge watching shows, Hubbard spent hours on end in the winter and spring honing his pass rushing techniques, bettering his body and building his confidence even further.

"I really spent a lot of the offseason getting ready to hopefully earn a starting job and grow in a bigger role with the defense," Hubbard said. "Obviously we didn't have the record we wanted, but I knew the next year I was going to take on a bigger role. I was planning to be prepared for that physically and mentally."

Hubbard understood that in order to earn a starting spot and improve his play as a defensive end he had to build strength and mass while maintaining his quickness and speed. He hooked up with Patrick Coyne, owner of Black Sheep Performance in Blue Ash, and set ambitious goals.

The weight room work paid off. Hubbard spent a lot of time in the eccentric stage to create a strong base with his muscles, tendons and ligaments. Exercises like loaded box jumps, high pulls, split squats and Romanian deadlifts helped him build core strength to be able to handle a 60 to 70 play workload. That routine, paired with his work with the Bengals' strength and conditioning staff helped Hubbard improve his preparation.

"I think it's all about having a routine," Hubbard said. "Every great player has a routine. Whether that is what you eat, how you get your body right, how you prepare for a game. I think that can only get better with time. What you do to prepare for a game doesn't get worse, it only gets better with time. You do the little things to increase productivity. I heard Tom Brady talk about how he's in his 20th year and he's still improving on his routine on how he gets his body and mind ready for a game. That's how I approach it. It's an ongoing process of getting better and playing at the highest level possible."

Another twist in Hubbard's offseason workouts was an increased focus on barefoot training. He executed trap bar deadlifts, Bulgarian Split Squats, broad jumps, hurdle hops and even sled pushes without shoes. The purpose of the barefoot training was to improve Hubbard's foot and ankle muscles. Most players possess a weak ankle structure due to being braced or wrapped during games and practices, and those issues can cause a ripple effect throughout the body.

On top of the strength and conditioning, Hubbard also went back to Ohio State working with his former defensive line coach Larry Johnson. The duo looked at film throughout the spring and focused on improving his technique and handling game situations. 

The combination of Hubbard's preparation, work ethic and humble demeanor quickly caught the eye of head coach Zac Taylor.

"He's exactly the kind of player you love to coach and be around, and you're combining talent with relentless effort, and that usually pays off," Taylor said.

Hubbard, a third-round draft pick last year, finished his rookie season with 39 tackles, one fumble recovery, seven tackles for loss, six sacks and nine quarterback hits. He got off to a strong start this year facing Seattle and quarterback Russell Wilson in the regular season opener. Hubbard stuffed the stat sheet with 10 tackles, two sacks for 16 yards, four quarterback hits and two tackles for loss.

Versatility is critical to the Bengals' success on defense and Hubbard is a perfect piece to the puzzle. At Moeller High School, Hubbard played both linebacker and safety showcasing his versatility and athleticism. While at Ohio State the original plan was for Hubbard to play at linebacker. However, Hubbard kept growing and with his athleticism, defensive end appeared the best fit for him and the team.

His ability to fill multiple roles is what Hubbard tries to hang his hat on as a player. Last year as a rookie he primarily played defensive end, but he also saw time at fullback in goal line situations and played on special teams.

Hubbard's personality doesn't scream exuberance, but his support system off the field does.

"I think being home (in Cincinnati) has been a great thing," said Hubbard. "I have family here to help me out. Especially with the little things I can't take care of by myself like watching my dog. They help me focus on what I need to focus on and support me. It's great having family and friends around me."

These days Hubbard is smiling, laughing and joking around, which isn't a great surprise because that's how he is pretty much every day. His teammates have noticed he's much more comfortable and assertive when he needs to be. It's been a long process, but one Hubbard is thankful he went through after his rookie season.

"I still feel like I'm getting started," Hubbard said. "There's a lot of things I am still learning and wanting to do better. I don't see any limitations. The sky is the limit for what I want to achieve and the work I want to put into it."