You got a taste of it last year on Hard Knocks, when several fringe players were profiled, but, remember, this was before Ryan Tannehill had won the starting quarterback job — there was more uncertainty and first impressions were important, even for those whom you’d have expected to be a lock to start.
Now, with a big free-agent haul beginning to be integrated, things are beginning to heat up, and Darren Rizzi, the Dolphins’ special teams coordinator, recently sat down with The Finsiders to walk through the process of building a successful unit.
“The thing we do from day one is really explain to the rookies, hey, listen, this is going to potentially be your way onto the football team,” Rizzi said. “If you start, great go get ‘em. Chances are most rookies aren’t going to be a ‘starter’ at their position.”
Putting together a formidable unit presents bit of a catch-22 for Rizzi: He has to pick the right blend from a pool of players who have likely never played special teams before. At the Division 1 level, rosters are large enough that starters are typically spared from double duty, due in part to a fear Once you start to get a feel for the roster, you begin to look for guys that can be multiple. Which special teams players can potentially help out on offense or defense — and vice versa?
So there is a running dialogue, Rizzi said, with both Mike Sherman and Kevin Coyle at this time of year to start sketching out who may be a good fit.
“Special teams, as you guys know, you can’t be one-dimensional; you have to wear a lot of hats,” Rizzi said. “You’ve got to be able to run down the field and make a tackle, and flip around the next time and block somebody. Sometimes those one-dimensional guys aren’t the guys you’re looking for. You’re really looking for a more well-rounded guy that can play what we call the four core teams.”
One of those malleable pieces, Marcus Thigpen, returns to the unit in 2013, perhaps even earning an expanded role on offense after a superb rookie season. A two-sport athlete in college — he also ran track — Thigpen caught on in the CFL, becoming the first player in league history to score a touchdown five different ways (kickoff return, punt return, missed field goal return, receiving, rushing). Once Dolphins coaches, including Rizzi, had a chance to work with him last summer, there was a sense that they had found a “diamond-in-the-rough type of player.”
A taste of NFL success has left Thigpen wanting more, and there is a mutual feeling that the best is yet to come.
“We still feel the ceiling is still high for him. He can still improve,” Rizzi said. But you sit back and look at this time of the year and he was in the top five both kick return average and punt return average, which for us is a great problem. We had a guy that was a quality guy last year but we feel can continue to improve.”
One of the summer’s most direct, one-on-one position battle will take place right under Rizzi’s watch. The Dolphins went against maintaining the status quo this offseason, bringing in Caleb Sturgis, the former Florida kicker, to compete with Dan Carpenter, the entrenched veteran.
“It’s going to be a very interesting battle,”said Rizzi, who helped conduct a nationwide search for a college kicker. “It’s the classic case of the young guy coming up and seeing if he can make the transition against a proven professional kicker. So we’re looking forward to the competition, for sure.”
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