By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe and Jenny Dilworth
As Javon Kinlaw labored under a blazing hot sun, toiling in a Mississippi heat so sweltering that it turned the grass brown, there was only one thing on his mind.
As he pushed himself on the practice fields and in the training rooms in Columbia, S.C., struggling to shrink his massive body, there was one goal and one person driving him every day.
And when he pushed himself relentlessly this summer, molding himself into an imposing presence and NFL prospect, his motivation was forefront in his mind.
Kinlaw grew up on the streets of Washington, D.C. with his mother and brother, dreaming of one day having a home. A real home.
"Living up there, me, my mom and my brother, we were really homeless the whole time we were up there," Kinlaw said. "We stayed in basements and things like that. … Just bounced around."
When Kinlaw was in the ninth grade, he moved to Charleston, S.C. to live with his dad and for what he called "a better opportunity."
Everything he has done since then, from learning the game of football in high school to playing junior-college ball in that sweltering Mississippi heat to transferring to the University of South Carolina and pursuing his NFL dream, he does for his mom and for a better life for his family.
"My mom has been there for 25 years and has never had her own home," he said. "That's the main thing, that's all it is. That's all I try to do, just get her her own place. That's really it."
If he continues to play the way he did last season, he may be on his way to realizing that dream.
"I just got to keep pushing, keep continuing to make progress," he said on the eve of Gamecock training camp.
No one on the South Carolina team improved more last year than Kinlaw, who didn't begin playing football until he was in the 10th grade at Goose Creek High School. He was a "chubby" 300 pounds as a high school sophomore and had no idea what he was doing.
"I was just out there, just standing looking over people and trying to figure out what was going on," he said.
After three years of high school football, Kinlaw signed with South Carolina but went to Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, Miss. to work on his grades and learn to play against bigger, better competition. A JUCO All-American, he showed up at South Carolina last summer weighing more than 340 pounds.
After a summer working with strength and conditioning coach Jeff Dillman and Nutrition Director Kristen Coggin, Kinlaw began to work himself into shape. By the start of the season, he was playing 10 to 15 snaps a game behind senior defensive tackles Taylor Stallworth and Ulric Jones.
As the weight melted off, he wound up playing in all 13 games, starting the final 10, and becoming a disruptive force in the middle of the Gamecock line. Playing against double and triple teams at times, he made 20 tackles, broke up three passes, forced a fumble, recovered two fumbles and blocked a kick. His fumble recovery in the Outback Bowl set up a third-quarter touchdown that sparked the Gamecocks to a 26-19 come-from-behind win over Michigan.
Going into his junior season, Kinlaw is considered an NFL prospect and is expected to be a driving force behind a more aggressive Gamecock defense.
“He has continued to improve himself as a player," head coach Will Muschamp said. "The guy has been through an awful lot, as far as going to Goose Creek, going to Jones, battling through that, getting here. Coming in at 340 and working himself to the middle of the year, he became a really good defensive tackle. He needs to continue to develop and stay healthy."
Kinlaw is proud of the weight he's lost over the past year, though he admits it took some serious fortitude and willpower. He cut back on things like pizza and Chinese food, though he admits he still can't stay away from Bojangles ("Oh no, I'm still going to get that chicken supremes box.").
"I used to be able to eat a box of pizza by myself," he said. "Now I don't really like eating too much. I'm kind of picky now."
He entered training camp at 305 pounds and declared himself stronger, faster and ready to play every defensive snap. He rewarded himself by switching from No. 99 to No. 3, a better fit on his now svelte physique.
"It's a big difference having lost all that weight," he said. "Now I'm ready to go. I feel like I'm stronger, faster and more prepared."
Kinlaw's focus over the summer was adding muscle and strength to his 6-6 frame. Defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson said he wasn't as strong as he needed to be when he transferred, despite his massive girth.
"Potentially, a guy that big you want him to be massive at moving people and doing those things," Robinson said. "Going through the JUCO route and doing all those different things getting here, we didn't have time to spend a bunch of time with him in the offseason to get his body that way. He has done a great job from a nutrition standpoint and from a strength standpoint. We look for that to pay dividends come fall."
Kinlaw said he was in the weight room twice a day at times this summer, participating in the type of offseason training he wasn't exposed to in high school and junior college.
"This has been my first real offseason, so I felt like it was a good one for me, particularly in the weight room," he said. "When I got the weight off, I knew I could run and stuff but I knew I wasn't that strong. Now I feel like I have got some strength. Last year I was just playing on brute strength, it wasn't really weight-room strength."
He's more prepared now, he said, to take on two or three offensive linemen, a big factor in freeing up linebackers T.J. Brunson and Bryson Allen-Williams to make tackles and D.J. Wonnum and Keir Thomas to get to the quarterback. Quicker and stronger, Kinlaw hopes to get in on some of that action himself.
"I want to play like those guys," he said. "They make a lot of plays and … that's what I want to do. I want to make plays."
His coaches are pleased with Kinlaw's progress. Now they are anxious to see what he can do next in his incredible journey, one that may lead him to the NFL and perhaps that home for his mom in Washington, D.C.
"He's done a really good job," Robinson said. "We are excited about him."
"Everything we have challenged him to do, he has done," Muschamp said. "We are expecting a big year out of him."